By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A lot of us have been there.
Maybe it was when you heard that middle schoolers are going without textbooks. Or when you realized that your neighborhood elementary school is overcrowded and has lousy test scores. Or when you learned that the school district is spending $200 million to build a high school on contaminated land.
You just wanted to rise up and shout, "Enough! I could run this school system better than these jerks!" Then you calmed down and got on with your life.
But not if you’re real estate attorney Howard Miller. Not this time. Last week, Miller — who had no official ties to the school district a few short weeks ago — was so steamed at the state of Los Angeles Unified that he marched to district headquarters, told the school board that the operation was in shambles, and offered to take over the whole damn $7 billion, 700-school, 700,000-student operation and whip it into shape.
After thinking it over for an hour, the school board, which is completely disenchanted with the current administration, gave Miller the job.
In a remarkable behind-closed-doors palace coup, Miller — who had signed on to revamp school-construction efforts three weeks earlier — persuaded a slim majority of the school board to put him in charge of the entireschool district at virtually a moment’s notice, effectively ramrodding the decision past other, skeptical board members as well as dumbfounded schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias.
Officially, Zacarias would have veto power over Miller’s decisions in Miller’s new role as "chief executive officer," and Miller would report to Zacarias. But everyone else in the senior chain of command would report to Miller, effectively isolating Zacarias from real control. And though the move was characterized as a friendly reorganizing strategy — an effort to mend, not end, the Zacarias administration — almost nobody was biting at that hook. Certainly not Zacarias, who immediately retained an attorney to represent him and who, through that attorney, demanded Miller’s departure. And not Zacarias supporters, who’ve turned out to be numerous, including practically the entire Latino activist community, which has rallied to support him and vigorously oppose the new school-board majority that some of them recently helped elect.
"You might as well put me in a closet," Zacarias told the Weekly this week. "I need to meet with my team to discuss initiatives. How can I do that in a vacuum? It’s ridiculous."
Many protesters have fingered Mayor Richard Riordan as a co-conspirator in the Miller scenario. After all, it was Riordan who helped elect the new board members through a campaign that became the most expensive school-board race in the nation’s history. But Miller is not especially close to Riordan, and both Riordan and the board members who moved against Zacarias deny any involvement on the part of the mayor. These board members also insist that the elevation of Miller was not worked out secretly in advance of last week’s board meeting.
There’s no denying that a central figure in the push to unseat Zacarias has been Genethia Hudley Hayes, the uncompromising school-board president and a novice to public office. Since joining the board in July, Hayes has established that she will brook neither opposition nor delay. Nor, apparently, will she slow down long enough to abide by open-meeting laws or forestall near riots over her board’s treatment of the well-liked but not universally well-regarded Zacarias. Miller was appointed via a closed-session agenda item inserted at the 11th hour, by Miller himself apparently, into the order of business, with less than the required 24 hours of public posting. As a result, Miller’s hire immediately faced the threat of a legal challenge from Zacarias’ attorney due to that and other factors. In the ensuing, sadly comical confusion, two separate and distinct streams of staffers, board members, consultants and attorneys streamed into meetings of the two opposing camps that claimed to rule the school system.
The immediate crisis purportedly arose out of revelations regarding a new South Gate high school project that eerily echoes the Belmont Learning Complex catastrophe, where a half-finished $200 million high school sits in limbo downtown because of environmental problems. At Belmont, the problems are caused by a shallow oil field beneath the school structures. At South Gate, where construction has not begun, the issue is a site with a long history of use by companies that polluted the ground with toxic chemicals. All parties want to avoid another Belmont, and following the recommendations of a specially appointed safety team, the board put the brakes on the South Gate project pending a thorough environmental review. But this directive was partly countermanded by midlevel administrators who instead opted for a slowdown that included continuing efforts to acquire land at the site.
Such a scenario is a familiar one in the school district. Different departments issue rival orders, and one part of the district doesn’t know what another is doing. Underlying the events at South Gate, however, is a continuing philosophical dispute pitting the safety team against managers in the real estate and facilities divisions. These "builders" view safety-team members as overly cautious and not properly focused on the overwhelming shortage of schools and classrooms. The safety-team members, meanwhile, reject this either/or dichotomy of "excessive" safety versus creating needed classrooms. They argue that the district never needs to compromise on safety and that the real delays in the building process are caused by endemic misfunction in the district bureaucracy.