By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
During a nationwide search, according to Tokofsky, Maria Ott, the district’s chief academic officer at the time, proved to be a standout candidate who really knew the business of public education. But, Tokofsky says, several board members found her “boring” because good PR was high on their list.
“She was talking folk, when the mayor was rock & roll,” Tokofsky explains. Ott lacked charisma, in other words, and the only candidate who shined in that area was the untried David Brewer.
“[Brewer] was hired because he was nontraditional leadership,” says then board member Mike Lansing, now executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor. Defending the hire, Lansing points to Brewer’s “experience working with a large work force” in several shipboard posts and a two-year stint as vice chief of naval education in Florida.
“He spoke very well for the district, and that was important,” says current board member Julie Korenstein, who also voted to hire him. “We hoped he would learn quickly,” she says wistfully.
On November 13, 2006, Brewer took his first official steps inside district headquarters downtown, at 333 South Beaudry Avenue. With an annual salary of $300,000, the retired admiral was also outfitted with a car, a $45,000 yearly expense account, a $3,000 monthly housing allowance, and a corner office on the 24th floor with majestic views of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign. According to Tokofsky, the first three months of Brewer’s tenure were the “victory” months. “There was such hope unleashed during that time.”
Brewer certainly hit the pavement, speaking to community groups in the San Fernando Valley and South and East Los Angeles and holding powwows with politicians in L.A. and Sacramento. An admirer of the ancient military-strategy book Art of War by Chinese mercenary Sun Tzu, he was determined to win over Villaraigosa.
“The mayor and I are going to transform this school district,” Brewer said after one meeting with Villaraigosa, having already gushed that the two were “joined at the hip.” The mayor gushed back, calling the retired admiral his “good friend” and giddily explaining that they finish each other’s sentences.
But Brewer’s fascination with the politics enveloping the massive district — its total annual budget is nearly $14 billion — soaked up months of time. Despite having a then-friendly Romer-era school board that would have quickly approved many of his decisions, Brewer failed to hire senior staff to help him in the crucial areas of curriculum and instruction — the real backbone for any turnaround.
“It would have been better to hire [his core staff]” when he had the backing of the board that hired him, says Lansing. “I think [Brewer] would agree with that.”
His dithering, which allowed a new, far less friendly school board to sweep into office before he could assemble his senior management team, was the first of several blunders. In October, when he finally made a big hiring decision nearly a year after taking office — promoting Romer’s successful chief curriculum instructor Ronni Ephraim to deputy superintendent of professional learning, development and leadership — he faced hostile board members and sudden battles driven by insider politics.
But vocal Brewer critic A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, was pleased with Brewer’s decision to give Ephraim responsibility over how the district trains its teachers. Ephraim, who is white, had overseen changes in classroom instruction in the grade schools that led to dramatic increases in reading test scores — including big achievement gains at impoverished black and Latino schools that many educators had insisted could not be improved due to poverty.
Yet behind the scenes, Villaraigosa’s board allies somehow believed that longtime educator Ephraim was using the wrong approach to teach English to Spanish-speaking children. Overriding Brewer’s own desire, and caving to pressure from ethnic advocacy groups, school board president Monica Garcia and her colleagues handed Brewer a publicly humiliating decision, giving Ephraim a one-year contract instead of the standard two-year deal. Longtime Villaraigosa friend and school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar voted against even the shortened contract. Ephraim would not comment on her situation.
In October, Brewer also managed to hire a chief financial officer, Megan Reilly, who finally started this month, and chief technology officer Tony Tortorice, neither of them L.A. Unified veterans. Columbia University professor Jeffrey Henig, author of several highly praised books on public education, including The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education, warns that if Brewer's staff don't know where the bodies are buried, they may not be able to “make the bureaucracy work.”
The most disconcerting hire is the one Brewer hasn’t made. The No. 2 job in this district, which educates one out of every 12 children in California, is that of the chief academic officer/deputy superintendent. That person would be Brewer’s right hand. The position, inexplicably, is still vacant.
Yet on December 4, Brewer stunned board members while unveiling the initial outlines of his long-overdue High Priority Schools reform plan, mentioning almost in passing that he was not going to hire anyone for the second-ranking job until June 2008.
“Did you say June?” asked board president Garcia in disbelief.
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