The Short Season of Howard Miller | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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The Short Season of Howard Miller 

School district’s No. 2 departs as suddenly as he arrived

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000
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It was an overheard comment, not intended for public consumption, but it very clearly spelled the end of a short but intense career. Howard Miller, said new L.A. schools chief Roy Romer to a district insider he considered an ally, was someone “who had a thousand ideas but has trouble carrying any of them through.”

And indeed, just days later, Miller, the district‘s chief operating officer, announced his resignation. The irony in Miller’s abrupt departure is that he, as much as any district official, started the revolution that led to Romer‘s hire. Now, less than a year later, he will see his own district career go the way of Robespierre -- the incorruptible, uncompromising French Revolutionary who sent royalty to the guillotine, only to ultimately perish under its blade himself.

Miller, of course, will depart in firm possession of his head; it will even be held high. He insists that no one pushed him out the door. And he leaves behind a remarkably altered district. Working under Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, Miller purged the school system of a regiment of incumbent officials, reconstructed the facilities division, ratcheted up efforts to provide students with clean bathrooms and sufficient textbooks, canceled the star-crossed Belmont Learning Complex project and angered teachers by insisting on salary incentives linked to student test scores.

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“Some of Howard’s decisions have riled a lot of stakeholders,” said a district source. “In his defense, he was there to shake things up, as was Ray Cortines. Howard didn‘t have the deftness of Ray. And right now, he is a potential irritant in labor negotiations, and in the effort to build and repair schools. Someone else can now come in and pick up the torch, finishing the job without the baggage that Howard has accumulated in the last six to nine months.”

In short, Miller and Cortines have created an opportunity for incoming Superintendent Roy Romer to assemble his own team, to avoid being undermined by ambitious or recalcitrant career bureaucrats. And if Romer can turn the educational ship of state, Miller and Cortines will deserve much credit for having made it possible.

As recently as a month ago, it appeared as though Miller, 62, had positioned himself to be part of that ongoing effort for some time to come. For one thing, he constituted one-third of the district’s three-person negotiating team with the teachers union. The other two -- Interim Superintendent Cortines and interim school-board counsel Richard Sheehan -- were long ago expected to leave as soon as July 1. And Miller‘s staff certainly thought he was sticking around, as did school-board member Valerie Fields, in an interview on May 5.

“Howard will be around longer [than June 30],” said Fields at the time. She added that no formal agreement had been reached: “It’s just an understanding. As much continuity as we can have will be beneficial. We can‘t have everybody walk out July 1. That would be a disaster.”

In recent months, however, board members who once raved about Miller commented in interviews that Miller, a real estate attorney by trade, is more a lawyer than a manager, and better at having ideas than at implementing them. They hinted that the district needed better direction and follow-through. “Good lawyers make lousy managers,” said one.

The new organizational chart -- which was assembled with Miller’s input -- has no obvious place for him. Its flattened management structure has school principals reporting to one of 11 district superintendents, who will, in turn, report directly to Romer.

As long as Miller worked with Interim Superintendent Cortines, the revised format was irrelevant to Miller‘s role, because he functioned as Cortines’ partner -- a near-equal: They met every morning to divide up tasks and update each other. “I had a unique partnership with Ray Cortines,” Miller noted in an interview this week, “one of the best in my life.” No such arrangement exists with Romer, and, perhaps more significantly, no power brokers inside or outside the district are pushing for it.

“I realized how much of the pleasure in what I have been doing comes out of my partnership with Ray Cortines,” said Miller. “To go forward without him would be a very different experience. And it‘s clear that Superintendent Romer wants to organize senior leadership in a different way. And he is absolutely entitled to. I entirely support that.”

To some degree, Miller worked himself right out of a job by overseeing professional hires capable of outperforming him in their areas of specialty. Miller would be hard-pressed to match the real-estate-management expertise of the newly hired managers in the facilities division. Nor does he have the school-district budgetary experience of Chief Financial Officer Joe Zeronian. And though Miller relishes diving into education matters, he is not the kind of credentialed, high-powered academic the school board might seek to pair with Romer, who has little education experience.

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