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Photo AP/Wide World
He’s the Rip Van Winkle of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
When Howard Miller left the school board 20 years ago, he had been completely rebuked — the only member ever to be recalled from office by voters. No one thought they’d ever see him again. And today, not many people at district headquarters even remember him.
But virtually overnight, Miller is back, summoned from the political slumber of a successful private life to become the school district’s chief operating officer, to take charge of all matters academic and otherwise, with the mission of shaking the laggard school system to its foundations and building it up again to make it work.
His swift return was remarkable; in an hour, behind closed doors, the school board — by a slim majority — stripped Superintendent Ruben Zacarias of nearly all authority and handed it to Miller. The move inspired instant outrage among Latino activists, who’ve always stood behind Zacarias, and who challenged the legality and manner of Miller’s hasty installation. There’s talk of lawsuits, student boycotts and breaking up the school district, while Miller, calmly at the center of the storm, has set up shop and begun to do business.
It’s as though he never left.
Twice Miller has entered the portals of leadership at L.A. Unified, and each time, he’s witnessed a historic firestorm — and, in the view of some, helped fan the flames.
Miller’s first entry into the fray ended in a recall that became a referendum on the forced busing of Los Angeles school children. Miller was trounced, with 58 percent of voters favoring his ouster. Although Miller did not personally favor the busing, "It was a legal obligation," he said in an interview this week. "I had been trained as a lawyer, and I was a law professor. And meeting the obligations of the law was a primary value in my life. It came out of my personality that upholding the law was important, and I did what had to be done."
The full picture is more complex. While earning much admiration, Miller had opponents on both sides of the busing issue, and critics who castigated his style as well as his substance. For Miller, the recall was a chastening experience that informs him to this day.
"One of the things I gained from the recall campaign was a sense of perspective," said Miller this week. "Nothing that happens now will ever equal 20 percent of the pressure that there was over the integration controversy. Because of that, I know that you have to keep your eye on the strategic goal. No one day is that important. And you have to keep calm no matter what happens."
That temperament will be tested in the weeks ahead, with the very future of the school district at stake. The school board, on September 21, first appointed Miller to salvage the district’s careening school-construction efforts, which are embodied by the Belmont Learning Complex, a desperately needed high school — already the most expensive ever — that may never open, because it sits on contaminated land. Then, on October 12, the board went further, making Miller CEO of the entire school system.
As one of the architects of his sudden rise, Miller himself became part of the ensuing controversy. It was Miller and legal consultant Barry Groveman who stood before the school board proposing that Miller deserved complete and immediate management control over the entire $7 billion operation.
Outside L.A. Unified, the life of 62-year-old Howard Miller has progressed peaceably enough. His civic rÃ©sumÃ© includes staunch progressive credentials: He helped inaugurate an affirmative-action program at USC Law School and, as legal counsel, fought to secure low-cost legal representation for California immigrant farm workers. A successful real estate attorney, investor and law-school professor, Miller is also a stable family man, devoted to his wife and three sons, and long active in the charitable causes and intellectual discourse of the Westside Jewish community.
It was his friend David Abel who first pulled him back to the school district over the summer. Abel, a member of the outside committee reviewing school-bond spending, was organizing a citywide conclave at the Getty Education Institute on how to build needed schools and how these schools could revitalize neighborhoods. Miller was a hard-sell, but once involved, he became a leader in the effort, in typical Miller style. And a couple of months later, the school board seized on Miller as a vehicle to supplant Superintendent Zacarias.
Abel considers Miller brilliant, but also believes that the school board and Miller have dealt themselves a difficult hand through their treatment of Zacarias. "I wouldn’t say that one of Howard’s strengths was as a politico," said Abel. "I don’t think he has the fine ear of someone who understands positioning in politics."
Miller’s elevation was an extraordinary turn for a school system whose board members, in interviews, could not even specifically name the private business accomplishments that would qualify Miller for such a post. Board members have more closely scrutinized the qualifications of contractors putting in window air conditioners than they did Miller’s.