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
Brewer replied: “I’m giving myself some time.”
Garcia stared at him, then shot back: “But your schools don’t have that time.”
Her comment, a rare display of open disapproval in decades of superintendent-school-board relations in this city, sent a hush through the crowded auditorium.
Educators who want Brewer to succeed — and there are many — have urged him for months to make this crucial hire. One result of his dawdling is that he still lacks both a clear plan on curriculum and instruction and a broader strategic academic plan. “I can’t even imagine leading a major school system without senior management,” says former San Francisco superintendent Ackerman.
The deputy superintendent is also the liaison between the supe and eight local district superintendents who oversee respective subdistricts carved out of the sprawling LAUSD, which encompasses not just L.A. but 29 other cities and county areas. Without a deputy, according to district insiders, Brewer’s communication with the rest of the district is poor at minimum.
Unless something changes, Brewer and his staff may be heading for a meltdown. “He’s juggling a lot,” says board member Tamar Galatzan. “[Brewer] relies on a small group of people for a lot of work, and those people are going to get burned out.”
Ackerman moved on her strategic plan for San Francisco within six months — and plenty of union leaders and teachers moaned about it. “If you want people to follow,” says Ackerman, who very much wants Brewer to succeed, “you have to be very clear.” But vagueness from Brewer is breeding “unrest.”
In a sit-down interview with the Weekly, the superintendent did not spell out any elements of a strategic plan, instead strongly emphasizing warmed-over slogans such as “high-performance culture” borrowed from author/motivators Stephen Covey and Jim Collins, whose books Brewer reads.
“That is really the goal right now,” the superintendent said of his high-performance-culture message. “And everyone has to figure out where their role is in making that happen.”
When asked who he meant by everyone, he replied in the broadest possible terms, typifying one of his troubles: “Everybody from the principals and directors all the way down to the bus drivers.”
Says noted Harvard University professor Richard Elmore, director of the federally financed Consortium for Policy Research in Education, “If the superintendent doesn’t drive a pretty big stake in the ground, it isn’t going to happen. Teachers don’t know what to do.”
Recently, Brewer has suggested that the teacher-payroll fiasco, and the time it consumes, has hampered his efforts. But when asked about Brewer's excuse, Ackerman said unequivocally, “You have to juggle multiple balls.”
No relief: Once again, Brewer, at an L.A. Unified media event, is stuck listening to the opinions of his boss, school board president Monica Garcia. (Photo by Ted Soqui)
Now, a window appearsto be closing, with the school board sounding increasingly unsupportive. “He asked [us] for six months, and it didn’t happen,” board president Garcia says dismissively of his strategic plan, underlining the tensions between Brewer and the board members, several of whom won office after taking millions of dollars in campaign donations from Villaraigosa’s business and labor pals.
This month, Villaraigosa conducted a controversial, money-drenched political campaign — complete with door prizes — to convince parents and teachers to let his office oversee reform at a handful of schools. Embarrassingly for Villaraigosa, just 9.9 percent of mothers and fathers bothered to participate. The small fraction who did vote agreed to let the Mayor’s Office oversee at least five schools.
Brewer, looking paralyzed even in comparison to Villaraigosa and his lackluster showing, is now covering his flank, saying his ideas for fixing 34 of the district’s worst schools will be “applied” to all classrooms. Yet some district insiders wonder if he has it backwards, suggesting he should adopt an all-encompassing plan like those in urban school districts that have shown sustained improvement — not let L. A.'s worst schools drive his agenda.
Brewer left observers scratching their heads on December 4, when he unveiled his long-awaited High Priority Schools plan. He used PowerPoint slides with pronouncements like: “The Strategic Plan is about synergy” and “It’s not a buffet, it’s a 7-course meal.”
Yet he spent less than two minutes going over what is perhaps his greatest challenge: how to improve the way kids are actually taught. (Brewer briefly suggested a more “personal touch” by teachers.) On December 18, after a rushed discussion of that key issue, the board approved his High Priority Schools plan for the 34 worst schools.
In the weeks leading up to his big December presentations, Brewer made two bizarre moves that provide at least some evidence that he may not be able to pull any of this off — prompting onlookers to wonder why he’s paying Democratic PR consultants a small fortune.
On November 6, the superintendent, dressed in his customary dark suit with gold tie, held a 6 a.m. press conference in the nearly empty lobby of LAUSD headquarters. He heralded “big change” and a “major adjustment” for the messed-up payroll system. The near-dawn hour was carefully calculated to get him on the early-morning news shows, and TV and radio stations showed up, dutifully reporting his sound bites.