A key Los Angeles school board member signaled Friday that she could consider removing L. A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer through a contract buyout and that she hoped to defuse racial politics in discussions of his future. The board member, Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, also expressed anger at the haste with which Brewer's critics have moved against him.
Brewer's future as head of the Los Angeles Unified School District has become enmeshed in the city's ethnic politics: Brewer is black and LaMotte is the only African American on the seven-member Board of Education.
Board president Monica Garcia, a Brewer critic, is Latina, as is her highest profile political ally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has clashed with LaMotte.
Garcia this week pushed for a vote to force Brewer out, midway through the former Navy vice admiral's four-year contract. But she backed down when LaMotte refused to cut short a scheduled trip to an out-of-town education conference. LaMotte accused Garcia and her allies of planning to oust the superintendent during LaMotte's absence.
LaMotte's position on Brewer's future is significant because she could choose to rally the city's black leadership behind him. In 2007, she characterized her reelection to the board as resisting the disenfranchisement of black voters in her South Los Angeles district, which is historically associated with African Americans but has become increasingly Latino. At the time, LaMotte cast her opponent as a tool of Villaraigosa and other "outside" interests, including former Mayor Richard Riordan.
In an interview Friday in San Diego, LaMotte stopped short of pledging unconditional support for the embattled superintendent.
Although she complimented his management of a recent payroll fiasco and an ongoing budget crisis, LaMotte said Brewer's job performance has yet to be evaluated properly because board members and the superintendent have never agreed on specific, quantifiable goals. She added that she could support a buyout "if everything is done properly, if everything is done legally."
She said she did not want the resolution of Brewer's employment to play out through an ethnic prism: "I don't want this to be a divisive thing in the city. We've had enough issues like that in the past."
Brewer, who was also attending the San Diego conference, echoed that view.
"That's the last thing we need," Brewer said, referring to any stoking of ethnic tensions. "I will back that down to the best of my ability." Instead, he has defended his record recently through a series of media appearances and e-mails to friends and supporters.
Among his accomplishments, Brewer lists the hiring of Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who joined L.A. Unified in April. Brewer has handed over day-to-day management and long-term planning for the nation's second-largest district to Cortines. He has focused on lobbying efforts, public meetings and serving as the district's public face.
Some board members now want to replace Brewer with Cortines, but Brewer insisted Friday that the partnership has benefited the district.
"That is clearly, clearly, clearly a bone of contention of the board . . . but I think it's worked out very well. I've been spending more time at schools since then," Brewer said.
The issue of Brewer's future has been a hot topic within the city's black community.
"Garcia believed Brewer's removal from his $300,000-a-year job was such a pressing issue that she moved on it faster than Congress moved to save the nation's failing economy," influential black columnist Betty Pleasant wrote in the Wave community newspaper this week. "Scuttlebutt also has it that while Villaraigosa is publicly distancing himself from Garcia's push to oust Brewer, he is busy as a bee dealing with the matter on the telephone, talking to his representatives on the Board of Education and to his comrade-in-arms, former mayor Richard Riordan."
Villaraigosa said this week that he had received calls about Brewer's status as superintendent, but he declined to disclose the details.
"Basically what I've said is I'm not satisfied with the pace of reform at L.A. Unified, but that the decision regarding the superintendent is a decision of the school board."
Members of the board's current majority, except for Garcia, were elected in campaigns financed through Villaraigosa's fundraising.
Riordan denied trying to get Brewer fired, although he acknowledged having lost confidence in Brewer's leadership. "If I were handling it, I would try to do everything to have Supt. Brewer save face," Riordan said. "He's a great human being."
The former mayor called it unfortunate that word of the board's action had leaked out.
A longtime education philanthropist who helped elect his own endorsed slate of board members in 1999, Riordan recently became frustrated when district officials rejected his yearlong effort to lead reforms at Dorsey High in South Los Angeles.
Support for Brewer -- and LaMotte -- is not automatic within the African American community.
"Marguerite LaMotte . . . has not provided consistent, effective leadership on behalf of black students," columnist Larry Aubry wrote this week in the Sentinel community newspaper. "Nor has Superintendent David Brewer."
Staff writer Phil Willon also contributed to this report.