Brewer's Bungled Buyout

Note: Story updates earlier version.

Once David L. Brewer III was officially out as Los Angeles schools superintendent, TV crews crowding the foyer at the Los Angeles Unified School District boardroom chanted “Monica! Monica!” for a word from board president Monica Garcia, the political wrecking ball who badly bungled his ouster.

After extolling Brewer’s hard work and noting that poor test scores still plague the massive LAUSD, she smiled a big, gloating grin, which betrayed the ugliness of months of infighting.

“We understand that we need stability,” Garcia said, recovering a veneer of decorum. As she wheeled away, one newsman shouted: “Will this board have a new superintendent by January 1?”——but she had disappeared through a door.

The media hubbub was a fitting capper to a week of confusion, bumbling — much of it caused by the ham-handed Garcia — and backstabbing among politicians Downtown, unusual even in the chronically screwed-up school district.

The essential facts were these: Brewer, the 62-year-old retired Navy vice admiral, who took the job amid politically stormy seas two years ago, was finally off the gangplank, set adrift by powers thought to include Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who still covets control of the school district — and its humongous budget.

The board voted 5 to 2 to buy out the final half of Brewer’s four-year contract — a move expected to cost the district a painful $500,000, or so.

School board trustees Garcia, Yolie Flores Aguilar, Marlene Canter, Tamar Galatzan and Richard Vladovic voted yes. Board members Julie Korenstein and Marguerite LaMotte, both said to be livid over the hurried mishandling of it all, voted no.

A few days earlier, Garcia, who has gained few admirers among respected education reformers in her 18 months as board president, picked her moment to squeeze Brewer out but saw her effort jeopardized when board member LaMotte headed to a previously planned meeting in San Diego.

Garcia, realizing the flak she’d get for dismissing a black civic figure like Brewer while LaMotte, the only black school board member, was away, allegedly resorted to a desperate act of buffoonery: She tried to physically chase down LaMotte’s train as it pulled away from Union Station.

As an unnamed aide to Garcia told the L.A. Times, the aide ran panting in high heels ahead of the heavyset Garcia, reaching the platform seconds too late as the train carrying LaMotte away slammed its doors shut.

“It was ... a word picture people couldn’t get out of their minds,” says Scott Folsom, vice chairman of the district’s Bond Oversight Committee, who is so bothered by what happened at Union Station that he questions the veracity of the wacky tale.

Garcia’s antics were followed by Brewer’s sly move to capitalize on them — by playing the race card. The key figures seen as pushing to remove him, including Garcia and Villaraigosa, are Latinos.  

Garcia took from Brewer any chance of leaving with quiet dignity, critics note, and once Brewer injected race into the ousting, the district had little choice but to pay off the full half-million-dollar price of his contract.  

Under a new superintendent chosen by Garcia and her board allies, will LAUSD ever focus on the kids?

The current elected board, in sharp contrast to the school board that was in power before Villaraigosa got involved, has focused very little board time in 2008 on improving classroom instruction or toughening the dumbed-down curriculum in middle- and high schools.

Critics note that Brewer, Garcia and the Villaraigosa-controlled board continually focused in 2008 on construction contracts and other distractions from the core mission — classroom instruction and teacher training.

Brewer and the board have been touting improved test scores, but those improvements are widely seen as arising from classroom- and teacher-training reforms forced on the resistant district between 2001 and 2006 by the former superintendent, Roy Romer. Few such reforms have been adopted since Romer left — amidst a hail of puzzling, public attacks by Villaraigosa on his substantial achievements. (See December 2007, “The Admiral’s Sinking Ship.”)

Clint Simmons, an L.A. County Aviation commissioner, whose three children have graduated from LAUSD schools, and who closely follows the situation, sums it up like this: “The mayor just wants [Brewer] out so [the city] can take control of the district. [Garcia] is working on behalf of the mayor, regardless of what she’s saying. There’s a $15 billion budget, and they just want to take control of that money. They want to take control — without any kind of plan at all.”

For a while, at least, 76-year-old Ramon C. Cortines — who is already handling much of the day-to-day operation of the sprawling district  — will serve as interim superintendent, according to one LAUSD spokeswoman. A number of observers agreed that Cortines’ experienced hand will ensure a modicum of stability in a bureaucracy that one elected official called an “untamable beast.”

Garcia’s train-chasing and her staff’s leaks to the media slapped Brewer down a few notches, and may have caused him to hang on more tightly, and demand more severance from his high-paying job. Instead of an amicable parting, on Monday he held a press conference, where his second-in-command, Cortines, introduced Brewer by saying, “He will take no questions” — then Brewer went on to play the race card.

“As an African-American, I’ve experienced my share of discrimination,” he said, in a statement distributed to the media. “I know what it looks like, smells like, and the consequences. Although this debate is disconcerting and troubling, it must not become an ethnic issue.”
Oops. Too late.

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Brewer flashed a broad smile — perhaps aware that he was about to get half a million bucks from the district’s badly strained budget if he agreed to leave quietly.
The buyout stuck in the craw of flaky Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who, hardly known as a fiscal watchdog at City Hall, last year voted to spend large sums of taxpayer money amidst the housing crisis and thus played a role in L.A. city government’s record 2008 deficit.

In the circuslike atmosphere surrounding Brewer’s departure, Councilwoman Hahn got on TV by telling reporters, “I have a real problem with spending half a million on someone who’s not going to be doing the job anymore.” She then bizarrely suggested that the school superintendent’s job be made into an elected position.

Reporters hammered Hahn with questions about her oddball announcement, which would introduce even more political scheming into the schools and would almost certainly be decried by serious education leaders and political leaders statewide — as well as nationwide.

Not to be outdone in grabbing some media attention, A.J. Duffy, head of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, reminded anyone who would listen that potential labor troubles loom, threatening whatever stability the school district might muster. Duffy bid good riddance to Brewer with a warning to Cortines or whoever comes next. “There’s been precious little collaboration between the superintendent and the teachers,” Duffy said outside the boardroom. “We’re sending a message to Ray [Cortines]: If he doesn’t deal fairly with us, we’ll have issues with him.”

If there is a plan at the top of LAUSD, it is hard to discern, given the unwillingness of everyone in power to be forthcoming about the future. Not one of the seven elected board members returned phone calls to answer questions for this story. Even players who despise one another — Brewer and Garcia, for example — conceal the animosity behind a facade of civility.

Only at unscripted moments does the dysfunction burst into the open, as it did in the last few days, when the months-long push to get rid of Brewer suddenly took on a now-or-never fervor.


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