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
From the moment he marchedin front of the television cameras, the new superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District proved himself to be a bit of a show pony, someone whose charisma and vigorous public-speaking style easily rivals Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s. He has the mayor’s energy. He has his enthusiasm. And, like the mayor, he speaks in broad brush strokes about race and poverty, eliciting from his audience the type of call-and-response that usually greets a minister at church in South Los Angeles.
David L. Brewer III, like Villaraigosa, even had his own dropout story, telling a rapt audience how he left Howard University because of poor grades, only to batten down and secure a college degree.
“He’s a black Antonio Villaraigosa,” said one elated elected official who met the retired U.S. Navy admiral this week.
School officials were downright giddy, behaving as though they had finally checkmated Villaraigosa, the pol who beat them senseless last summer by labeling L.A. Unified a failure and convincing the state Legislature to diminish the power of the school board.
How sweet was revenge? First off, school board members picked the new CEO while Villaraigosa was in China zipping from photo ops to fashion shoots. They secured a unanimous vote, convincing even school board member Monica Garcia, a staunch Villaraigosa ally, to select Brewer during the mayor’s 14-day Asia junket. They picked Brewer weeks before Villaraigosa’s school bill goes into effect, giving him veto power over future superintendents. And did we mention that Brewer is black?
That’s important, because Brewer dazzled not just the city’s political elites, but the African-American leaders who felt keenly betrayed by Villaraigosa’s push for power at L.A. Unified. With a single vote, the school board’s message is clear: Okay, so what if Villaraigosa’s 32-member Council of Mayors — the group that will oversee the new superintendent — has only a seat or two for African-Americans? This district will still have a black superintendent, a symbol of African-American clout in a city where many black students are falling behind.
Once they one-upped the mayor, school board members did exactly what Villaraigosa did once he prevailed in Sacramento. They threw a party, declaring that it was finally time for the mayor and L.A. Unified to put down their swords and work together, arm in arm, for the children.
DON’T BELIEVE IT. And for that matter, don’t believe the mayor and his people when they say they are forging ties with the school district. From now on, the minute you hear the word partnership from either side, just assume the speaker is either lying or totally naive. Because in truth, both sides are hunkering down, girding themselves for six months of combat.
Before Brewer had even been selected, the mayor’s camp pressed the Los Angeles Times to investigate whether the sailor had ties to school district contractors, according to three district officials, who would not be identified. Michael Trujillo, an apparatchik for the mayor’s campaign committee, called one school-construction firm himself to determine whether Brewer has a personal relationship with Jim McConnell, the former construction czar for L.A. Unified who now heads a school-development firm. Hours before district officials named Brewer, they found themselves trying to counter a hatchet job, telling the Times that their pick did not personally know McConnell, a former military man himself.
Mayoral campaign spokesman Nathan James said L.A. Unified’s allegations are not “ringing a bell,” then accused the district of being sore at the mayor. “I talk to the Times all the time. I’m not going to talk to you about what I talked about,” he said. “This obviously is a big story, and one that everybody should be following up on — who the candidates are, what their qualifications are.”
And this is only the beginning. The school board is pressing ahead with its lawsuit asking a judge to declare Villaraigosa’s school bill unconstitutional. Villaraigosa’s campaign committee, a team seasoned in opposition research, is searching for ways to unseat three incumbent school board members in March. On the day the board hired Brewer, Villaraigosa’s committee went to the Ethics Commission to pick up copies of the school board members’ campaign fund-raising reports.
In other words, the acrimony between the mayor and the school board is bound to get worse, warned Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who heads the Los Angeles Urban Policy Round Table.
“The superintendent is the jewel in the crown,” Hutchinson declared. “Mayor Villaraigosa was bound and determined, as part of this takeover plan, to control the next superintendent. Obviously, he did not. So what you’re going to see is a major — maybe not publicly, but privately, behind the scenes — tug of war over that superintendent.”
Hutchinson, a powerful voice within the African-American community, called on Villaraigosa to make peace with the district. And publicly, Villaraigosa’s team did make conciliatory gestures, saying the mayor is disappointed with the school board but eager to meet the new superintendent.
A day after the board picked Brewer, the mayor’s top education adviser insisted that Villaraigosa still wants a relationship with the school district — not just the superintendent, but each of the seven board members. But he also argued that the board’s timing created some tension. “They could have waited till [Villaraigosa] came home,” said Ramon Cortines, who once headed L.A. Unified himself.