Come to Order, Class
A lot of us have been there.
Maybe it was when you heard that middle schoolers are going without textbooks. Or when you realized that your neighborhood elementary school is overcrowded and has lousy test scores. Or when you learned that the school district is spending $200 million to build a high school on contaminated land.
You just wanted to rise up and shout, "Enough! I could run this school system better than these jerks!" Then you calmed down and got on with your life.
But not if you�re real estate attorney Howard Miller. Not this time. Last week, Miller � who had no official ties to the school district a few short weeks ago � was so steamed at the state of Los Angeles Unified that he marched to district headquarters, told the school board that the operation was in shambles, and offered to take over the whole damn $7 billion, 700-school, 700,000-student operation and whip it into shape.
After thinking it over for an hour, the school board, which is completely disenchanted with the current administration, gave Miller the job.
In a remarkable behind-closed-doors palace coup, Miller � who had signed on to revamp school-construction efforts three weeks earlier � persuaded a slim majority of the school board to put him in charge of the entire school district at virtually a moment�s notice, effectively ramrodding the decision past other, skeptical board members as well as dumbfounded schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias.
Officially, Zacarias would have veto power over Miller�s decisions in Miller�s new role as "chief executive officer," and Miller would report to Zacarias. But everyone else in the senior chain of command would report to Miller, effectively isolating Zacarias from real control. And though the move was characterized as a friendly reorganizing strategy � an effort to mend, not end, the Zacarias administration � almost nobody was biting at that hook. Certainly not Zacarias, who immediately retained an attorney to represent him and who, through that attorney, demanded Miller�s departure. And not Zacarias supporters, who�ve turned out to be numerous, including practically the entire Latino activist community, which has rallied to support him and vigorously oppose the new school-board majority that some of them recently helped elect.
"You might as well put me in a closet," Zacarias told the Weekly this week. "I need to meet with my team to discuss initiatives. How can I do that in a vacuum? It�s ridiculous."
Many protesters have fingered Mayor Richard Riordan as a co-conspirator in the Miller scenario. After all, it was Riordan who helped elect the new board members through a campaign that became the most expensive school-board race in the nation�s history. But Miller is not especially close to Riordan, and both Riordan and the board members who moved against Zacarias deny any involvement on the part of the mayor. These board members also insist that the elevation of Miller was not worked out secretly in advance of last week�s board meeting.
There�s no denying that a central figure in the push to unseat Zacarias has been Genethia Hudley Hayes, the uncompromising school-board president and a novice to public office. Since joining the board in July, Hayes has established that she will brook neither opposition nor delay. Nor, apparently, will she slow down long enough to abide by open-meeting laws or forestall near riots over her board�s treatment of the well-liked but not universally well-regarded Zacarias. Miller was appointed via a closed-session agenda item inserted at the 11th hour, by Miller himself apparently, into the order of business, with less than the required 24 hours of public posting. As a result, Miller�s hire immediately faced the threat of a legal challenge from Zacarias� attorney due to that and other factors. In the ensuing, sadly comical confusion, two separate and distinct streams of staffers, board members, consultants and attorneys streamed into meetings of the two opposing camps that claimed to rule the school system.
The immediate crisis purportedly arose out of revelations regarding a new South Gate high school project that eerily echoes the Belmont Learning Complex catastrophe, where a half-finished $200 million high school sits in limbo downtown because of environmental problems. At Belmont, the problems are caused by a shallow oil field beneath the school structures. At South Gate, where construction has not begun, the issue is a site with a long history of use by companies that polluted the ground with toxic chemicals. All parties want to avoid another Belmont, and following the recommendations of a specially appointed safety team, the board put the brakes on the South Gate project pending a thorough environmental review. But this directive was partly countermanded by midlevel administrators who instead opted for a slowdown that included continuing efforts to acquire land at the site.
Such a scenario is a familiar one in the school district. Different departments issue rival orders, and one part of the district doesn�t know what another is doing. Underlying the events at South Gate, however, is a continuing philosophical dispute pitting the safety team against managers in the real estate and facilities divisions. These "builders" view safety-team members as overly cautious and not properly focused on the overwhelming shortage of schools and classrooms. The safety-team members, meanwhile, reject this either/or dichotomy of "excessive" safety versus creating needed classrooms. They argue that the district never needs to compromise on safety and that the real delays in the building process are caused by endemic misfunction in the district bureaucracy.
The safety team itself is only a recent construct, so the "builders" are unaccustomed to such challenges of their competency, having historically received complete support from the school board. But not from this school board, which has sided with the safety team on virtually all matters in the wake of the Belmont debacle. As has Zacarias.
On Sunday, October 10, the safety team met Howard Miller and a number of district administrators at the Century City office of environmental attorney and district consultant Barry Groveman, a driving force on the safety team.
Miller, a lawyer, developer, professor and longtime Jewish-community activist, was brand new to the district. Well, new to recent times at least. Miller had actually served on the school board from 1976 to 1979, but was recalled from office in a campaign led by anti-busing activists, who targeted him for his willingness to comply with court-ordered busing for integration. His involvement in the school district rekindled this summer, when he joined a community effort, spearheaded by the Getty Education Institute among others, to look at ways to respond to the need for more schools. He accepted a job to look at the problem from the inside after his name came up in discussions directed by Steve Soboroff, the real estate consultant and mayoral advisor who chairs the independent oversight committee that reviews school-bond spending. Soboroff suggested bringing in an outside expert to help resolve the school-facilities crisis, and attention soon focused on Miller, whose admirers include board members David Tokofsky and Valerie Fields. A divided board made the move on September 21 after brief deliberation. Miller�s specific assignment was to reorganize the entire school-construction operation, and his authority was apparently intended to be sweeping.
At the Century City meeting, both Groveman and Miller were exasperated that the stop order on South Gate had been undermined. Also at the meeting, ostensibly as spectators, were school-board member Fields and board president Genethia Hayes. The presence of serious levels of pollution has been known for a while, but some revelations emerged, namely that $39 million already had been sunk into this project and that the existence of potentially explosive underground oil pipelines could put the whole effort at risk.
Two days later, at the closed session of the school board, Groveman and Miller argued that the South Gate episode was the last straw, that the district bureaucracy was both incompetent and out of control, and that drastic measures were called for.
"Barry goes into, �The moment is now. We need to seize the moment. The district is in total shambles. We have to take over everything, and this is the best thing for Ruben,�" recalled one board member who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Zacarias told the Weekly that he learned of the Miller gambit 30 minutes beforehand. In fact, the previous day, Groveman and Miller, when they briefed Zacarias on South Gate, spoke only of wanting to create a crisis-management team for that project. "I said, �Go to it. That�s what you were brought in for,�" said Zacarias.
The next morning, at about 10, Zacarias said he got word that Groveman and Miller wanted to meet with him outside the school-board offices. They wanted to know if he was still on board with them. He assured them he was. Then they handed him a resolution for the board to vote on, the one naming Miller as CEO.
"I�m reading this and I say, �Wait. What�s this about a CEO?," recalled Zacarias. "They said, �This is the only way it will work.� I said, �You gotta be kidding. Let�s talk about this. This will have tremendous implications. Any reasonable person will see this as a stripping of my authority.�"
Miller and Groveman went ahead regardless. Once inside with the school board, Zacarias said he was not prepared to respond in detail, but was willing to negotiate a workable arrangement. He insisted, however, that his senior deputies continue to report to him.
But no compromise or delay was offered, said a board member who asked not to be named. "Barry says, �This is it.� And Miller says he won�t accept it any other way. Then Genethia calls for a vote."
Many observers, including Zacarias, feel the fix was in at this point. "Obviously, it had all been predetermined," concurred board member Victoria Castro, who joined Tokofsky � Miller�s friend � in voting against the expansion of Miller�s duties. Why would Groveman and Miller take the tremendous risk of urging the board to put Zacarias on the sidelines unless they knew they had the votes to make it happen? And why would the school board make such an extreme move on such short notice unless it had been pre-ordained, worked out in advance?
Because Groveman is running for the office of district attorney, cynics have suggested that he raised the hatchet above Zacarias to win campaign support from Riordan and other powerful interests. And they question whether it is appropriate for Groveman � a hired environmental consultant � to be leading the charge against the senior management of the school district. But Groveman has defenders, too. "Barry is like a pit bull on an issue," said a district source. "He doesn�t let go until it is resolved." The source added, "Yes, Barry�s taking an enormous risk, but don�t you think it�s a little arrogant, or a little stupid, to say the board is being manipulated by a single person?"
One way or another, though, Riordan is bound to be viewed as the original instigator. "When the new board members were elected, they had their marching orders," said one senior official, who asked not to be named. "It doesn�t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Now, Valerie [Fields] has joined them. They call the shots now."
To the president of the teachers union, it looked like the beginning of the end. "It�s a way to replace Mr. Zacarias," said Day Higuchi of United Teachers Los Angeles. "If I were a board member, my level of frustration might be so high I�d grab at a straw � and that straw was Howard Miller."
At midweek, Zacarias evinced no willingness to surrender his post. "I have no intention of stepping down," he said. "I told the board to their face, �If four or more of you don�t want me around, stop playing games and tell me so. I can�t stop you. You have every right. But this is arrogance to walk in and throw something in front of me and say it�s got to be this way now. Let�s work out the details and cover all the bases so there�s no misunderstanding.�"
Ultimately, it wasn�t so much that Groveman and Miller wooed the board. Rather, they provided an opening. Board president Hayes had a rocky relationship with Zacarias even before she became a school-board member. And it didn�t take long for her new colleagues to attach weight to their own doubts. "This is a whole culmination of things over three months," said new board member Caprice Young in an interview this week. "You hear these proclamations from the top, but nothing happens. The superintendent says that schools must buy books, and I still get calls that there are no books in schools."
"There�s no question that this district is one of the most poorly managed of businesses," said new board member Mike Lansing. "The kids are the ones getting the short end of this."
Yet in spite of appearances, the board majority asserts that the Miller appointment was not the first step in dumping Zacarias, but a desired end in itself. "The organization structure we put in place has the best chance of working," said Young. "We have the outside guy [Zacarias] for policy, vision and strategy, and the inside guy [Miller] as the ramrod. This setup has worked for a lot of corporations in this country as well."
Young allowed that there were some rough spots in Miller�s installation, but "nothing is particularly graceful in politics. It was done about as gracefully as it could have been done in this context."
In this viewpoint, Young is not in the majority. And by midweek the board � Young included � was leaning toward re-doing the Miller appointment in a less questionable manner.
For the meeting at which Miller was named CEO, there were five versions of the closed-session agenda, the last one handwritten. The Miller item did not appear till the fourth version. "Appointment of management personnel" was the only explanation offered on the agenda. Miller�s name was not even listed. Nor were there any backup materials.
The addition of the Miller item was made between about 2 and 2:45 p.m. on the day before the 9 a.m. meeting, at the direction of Miller himself, said Brad Sales, a district spokesman who resigned this week after accusing Miller of intimidating him and other staff members.
Sales also said that Miller confronted him as he was shuffling through papers in response to a reporter�s request for the agenda, which is a public record. According to Sales, "Miller said, �You�re stirring up trouble and I know it.�" Sales added that Miller pointed to the item about South Gate and said to him, "If this gets out, the whole district goes down. And I�m going to hold you responsible."
Miller has denied intimidating anyone and said he regrets Sales� departure, but the allegation only exacerbates the widespread impression that the board majority � and president Hayes in particular � is apt to stumble over process while being overly zealous to silence comment within the institution.
All told, it�s a rough first year for a board that promised to run the school district like the hands-off board of directors of a Fortune 500 corporation. Of course, this board had a schizophrenic mission from the beginning. On the one hand, the new board members touted themselves as reformers. On the other, they unanimously pledged to get out of the way and let the superintendent do the job. But Zacarias was never their choice. At any rate, they haven�t shown any intent to get out of the way and let him do the job.
"By the book, you empower your superintendent, maintain broad goals and set some distance," commented former school-board member Mark Slavkin. "The majority of this board understands this is the right way to go. Where they appear to be ambivalent is that they�re saying, �We can�t back away now, because if we hand over the reins, they�ll blow it. As soon as we get the right leadership team in place, then we�ll do all the right things.�"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.