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
But it is the presence of Romer himself who most made Miller seem vestigial. Miller’s role under Cortines included managing tough political negotiations behind the scenes, as well as standing in as the public face of the school district. In Romer, the popular, three-term Colorado governor who chaired the Democratic National Committee, the school district has acquired a political animal extraordinaire.
“Howard was the one who was trying to make deals with the politicians,” commented one district insider, “and that‘s what Romer does, and Romer probably does that better than Howard. Romer is a professional deal-maker. I really don’t think we need two deal-makers.”
For an eventful nine months, Miller was a focal point in the school district‘s transition from a lackluster past to a more ambitious, if uncertain, future. In September, the school board, by a 4-3 vote, appointed Miller to be a school-facilities czar, charged with getting old schools repaired and new ones built. Miller quickly discovered the district was fatally short on land, money, personnel and planning. And he was able to work no miracles.
Then, in October, Miller allowed himself to be put forward as the CEO of the entire school system. Board members approved the move by another 4-3 vote, effectively wresting control of L.A. Unified from Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. The ham-handed coup triggered a leadership crisis and widespread protests, as well as lingering bitterness and distrust. When the dust settled, board members had bought out Zacarias and brought in Interim Superintendent Cortines. Miller remained as the chief operating officer.
The Zacarias episode did nothing for Miller’s popularity within the school-district rank and file. Opponents also assailed his salary -- about $16,000 a month, the same level as Zacarias -- and his health-benefits package. And teachers resented his insistence on linking teacher raises to test scores: “In order for the school system to survive, literally, we‘ve got to refocus entirely on student achievement,” Miller said this week, “and these test scores have got to get better, or more disturbing things will happen than simply talking about incentives based on student performance. Test scores have got to be part of the discussion. Show improvement on student tests,” he admonished teachers, “and your salaries will go to places far beyond what you’re now imagining.”
On this one, Cortines did not present a united front. “I don‘t believe in individual merit pay,” said Cortines in a recent interview. “I believe in group incentives. I think the unions are not the adversary. The unions are who we are.”
This episode delineated a good-copbad-cop interplay between Cortines and Miller, often over issues in which the two officials had a genuine difference of opinion. With the Belmont Learning Complex, Cortines, moved by the pleas of Belmont students, wavered on Miller’s recommendation to abandon the site. But Miller stuck with his hard line, and the school board sided with Miller. In this instance, Miller provided cover for a school-board majority heavily tilted against the project, which it had inherited from an earlier board. Miller‘s uncompromising front gave board members a political refuge.
The episode also would serve to demonstrate how Miller’s elevation diluted his focus on his original mission: repairing and building schools. It also would underscore his declining influence with the school board.
The project to build a new Belmont high school, atop a shallow oil field, was ostensibly stalled over environmental concerns: The oil field will always emit small amounts of explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide. State experts, however, have not ruled out installing an effective, reasonably priced safety system. So when Miller recommended canceling the project, he was practically obliged to pledge alternative school sites that could be delivered more rapidly, cheaply and safely to a neighborhood that has long suffered from school overcrowding. Several proposed alternatives quickly fell to the wayside over environmental concerns or other issues, while the board failed to authorize studying others.
It‘s not the first time that Miller has had to adjust in midstream. His push to get state school-construction funds stalled over a new, extended environmental-review process. And then there was his school-conversion plan. Faced with catastrophic overcrowding, particularly at the high school level, Miller proposed building dozens of small elementary schools. These schools could be built relatively quickly because they required smaller lots and fewer amenities, such as chemistry labs or football fields. Existing school sites could then be reconfigured as needed to serve the upper grades. The plan, despite receiving initial acclaim, died in the face of community opposition.
“I think it was a brilliant plan,” commented board member David Tokofsky, a friend and admirer of Miller, “but he didn’t line up the people on the ground you need to have supporting you.”
Board member Victoria Castro, a Miller critic, offered a harsher interpretation: “Miller went out there with this ‘brilliant idea’ without doing his homework. And there have been other incidents like that, where Miller ends up having to retract. Like when he said the old Terminal Annex was the solution for a school in the Belmont area. As soon as it was announced, I started to get environmental reports about how bad that site was. I want to say, ‘How come you don’t know that, Miller?‘ We’ve lost time, and time is money. And it‘s also a loss of services to children. To me, that’s very serious.”