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
LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT teachers and parents took to the streets of Los Angeles recently to protest a looming $3 billion budget cut to education statewide. Their message to the state legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: Do not take money from our troubled, sprawling urban school district.
Thousands of Los Angeles teachers had hoped that LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer III would commiserate with them, but Brewer, facing questions over the legality of a teacher “late-in” protest, instead sought to have the job action barred by the courts. Then he recorded a voice message, sent to all teachers and parents, asking them not to participate.
His “robo-message,” in which he told parents that he was concerned for their children’s safety in the event of a teacher walkout, didn’t go over well.
“I found it incredibly condescending and hypocritical,” says Erika Schickel, a mother with two students in LAUSD. “If he wants to prevent something from actually hurting the children, it is these budget cuts to education.”
A.J. Duffy, president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, who has often been at odds with Brewer, quipped of Brewer’s phone message, “We probably should cut Brewer a check for services rendered. That did more to organize the parents and teachers than anything else.”
But beyond the lighthearted jabs is a growing sense that Brewer, a former Navy vice admiral who had no previous experience in kindergarten-through-12th-grade public schools, is a lame-duck superintendent. Former board members, education experts, teachers and parents paint a picture of a politically motivated hire gone wrong.
Over the past two months, Brewer — who has drawn criticism for moving far too slowly on high school dropout rates, and for failing to swiftly investigate accusations of teacher sexual misconduct and other pressing problems — has been even more marginalized, this time by his own choice in hiring Ray Cortines, a former LAUSD superintendent who also stewarded New York’s schools.
Cortines’ title, senior deputy superintendent, does not fully describe his expanding role. While the 75-year-old Cortines says, “[Brewer] is the face and voice of the district. He is dealing with Sacramento and Washington. Really, my job is to pick the paper off the playground,” the LAUSD organizational chart shows that the vast majority of district departments now report directly to Cortines.
Brewer now deals directly only with the board of education, the chief of staff and the executive office. Even more telling of the power shift is how Cortines quickly rescinded Brewer’s promises to share LAUSD classroom space with seven charter schools.
“What does it mean to be ‘the face’? What does it mean if the legs, arms, brains and all the other body parts are lines drawn to Cortines?” asks a former high-ranking district official who asked to remain anonymous.
Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, contends that many of Brewer’s problems stem from the fact that he “was strictly a political hire — he was an African-American, and they [hired him] quickly” in order to blunt Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts at that time to wrest control of the district from the elected school board.
Regalado argues that the board hired Brewer hastily because its members feared Villaraigosa would win his bid to grab control of the district, and then would get to choose a successor to Roy Romer, the highly praised outgoing superintendent whom Villaraigosa continually, and some say inexplicably, slammed.
By hiring a black man, Regalado says, the board was playing cynical racial politics: Villaraigosa was unlikely to raise objections to their choice because he believes he needs black voters in order to win his second bid for mayor, in 2009.
Yet Villaraigosa might be getting his way anyway. Cortines is widely seen as the mayor’s man, and he enjoys tacit support from the seven-member elected board of education now dominated by four people whom Villaraigosa’s allies showered with campaign funds last year.
Against this highly politicized backdrop, Brewer must cut $350 million from the schools’ nearly $14 billion budget. He and LAUSD Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly recently proposed saving $50 million by requiring employees to take four unpaid days off from work.
That’s when Cortines’ curious new role as much more than Brewer’s number-two man emerged.
Plainly contrary to his new boss, on June 9, Cortines told the Los Angeles Daily News that he opposed Brewer’s plan to require teachers and lower-paid employees to take four unpaid days off.
Nor is Cortines backing down from that position now, several days later. “When we say we are not cutting teachers, then you cut their salary for four days, you are cutting teachers,” Cortines tells L.A. Weekly.
Regalado now predicts that, “If Antonio is going to be around for a second [mayoral] term, he gets to play under Cortines, who fully believes in [Villaraigosa’s] mission and parroted him” during his unsuccessful fight to take control of the district from the school board.