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A Black Antonio? 

Or, will the new school superintendent turn out to be the next Willie Williams

Wednesday, Oct 18 2006
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From the moment he marched in 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.

“I respected, and the mayor respected, their process,” he added. “I just felt very strongly about his inclusion going forward, that it would really send a sign to the community that we were not just using the word partnership, that it was very sincere.”

There’s that word again — partnership. By now, who can take it seriously? School board member Marlene Canter used it as she stood with Brewer in Leimert Park, the cultural heart of black Los Angeles. School board member David Tokofsky promised partnership too — once the district blocks the mayor’s bill in court, that is.

“Hopefully, we’ll get an injunction, and then we’ll all be working together,” he declared.

Even Canter and Cortines, the most conciliatory faces on each side of the divide, couldn’t work out an agreement on the superintendent search, despite Canter’s offer to let Villaraigosa sit in on the board’s closed-door candidate interviews. And if relations are strained now, how will Brewer, a brand-new administrator with scant education experience, run a district when his two bosses — Villaraigosa and the school board — are at war on the campaign trail?

James, the campaign spokesman, downplayed such worries. “People always run against incumbents. That doesn’t mean everything in government grinds to a halt,” he said.

Others aren’t so sure. Former school board member Genethia Hudley Hayes turned down a request from the mayor’s campaign committee to engage in a rematch against incumbent board member Marguerite LaMotte, in part out of dismay over the bad blood between Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified. Hayes said the mayor’s committee told her that a “plethora” of people were out to replace not just LaMotte, but also school board members Jon Lauritzen and David Tokofsky.

“I think both sides have erred in the handling of this,” she said. “Somebody needs to de-escalate this thing. Somebody needs to defuse this thing.”

Others aren’t so shy. Education activist Luis Sanchez, who managed the campaign of Monica Garcia, Villaraigosa’s only ally on the school board, is gunning for Tokofsky. Johnathan X. Williams, whose South L.A. charter school was the backdrop for the mayor’s State of the City speech, is mulling a contest against LaMotte. And Richard Vladovic, a former L.A. Unified administrator, wants the seat being vacated by school board member Mike Lansing — and says the district should drop its legal fight against the mayor.

So what’s the score? In the feud between Villaraigosa and the school board, the two sides are officially tied, 1-1. But that could change. The school board could screw Villaraigosa by awarding Brewer a four-year contract, keeping the new superintendent in place well into the mayor’s second term. Then the mayor could screw the board, by convincing a handful of suburban mayors to oust Brewer. That can’t happen, however, without an ugly political fight and a flat-out belly flop by the new supe. “Breaking that contract will have great repercussions,” warned U.S. Representative Diane Watson, who sued Villaraigosa to block his school bill.

The funny thing is, political victories have a way of being quickly reversed. Villaraigosa’s education bill could be found unconstitutional. And Brewer, a man still unsure if he supports school vouchers, could find himself in way over his head. He could emulate Roy Romer, the superintendent who came to L.A. Unified six years ago and made huge strides. But he could also resemble former LAPD chief Willie Williams, who came to Los Angeles in 1992 amid great fanfare, only to slink out of the city a failure five years later.

Publicly, Brewer isn’t the least bit worried about the school fight. Asked who his real bosses are, he answered, “The children of L.A. Unified.”

Like they said in Leimert Park — as smooth as Villaraigosa.

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