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Leading questions

The mayor has a team to guide his schools initiative, so what's holding back L.A. Unified?

February 27, 2008

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has lined up an impressive team of experts for his education initiative. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, in contrast, key positions on the senior management team remain unfilled nearly a year and a half after David L. Brewer was named superintendent. This has become an embarrassment.

Villaraigosa just added a top administrator from the San Diego school system as the superintendent of instruction for a handful of schools the mayor will oversee. He already has in place the former president of the highly regarded Green Dot charter schools, and Ramon C. Cortines, a respected former superintendent of the L.A. public schools.

The district's hiring picture looks like this: Desperately seeking a chief deputy superintendent and associate superintendent of instruction. Head lawyer is leaving Friday. Controller and other management positions also available.

To be sure, Brewer has been mightily distracted over the last year by the still-messy payroll fiasco. But this is exactly what the L.A. schools cannot afford to do, lurch from one issue-of-the-moment to another. Brewer, who has no real background in public education, has been either unwilling or unable to forge connections with the people who could help him locate and woo smart deputies. Under his stewardship, the district still lacks a strategic plan or even a few swift, top priorities to propel it forward.

This isn't all Brewer's fault. The new board is highly politicized and overly inclined to impose its own biases on Brewer's hiring decisions. It has failed as much as anyone to articulate a new vision. It's not the same board that hired Brewer, which puts him in a weak position to stand up to his employers. Residual bad feeling among the district's old guard continues to color its interactions with the mayor's office, which tried but failed to win a governance role in the schools. At the same time that all of this is roiling at the management level, the district's giant central bureaucracy slowly churns on, as impenetrable and unaccountable as ever.

By this time, Brewer's failure to hire his senior team is itself a disincentive to possible candidates. Both the district and its chief look lethargic and inexpert. This is the conundrum that faces the L.A. public schools: To attract good leadership, it has to have good leadership.

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