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The Old New Guy

Photo AP/Wide World

He’s the Rip Van Winkle of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

When Howard Miller left the school board 20 years ago, he had been completely rebuked — the only member ever to be recalled from office by voters. No one thought they’d ever see him again. And today, not many people at district headquarters even remember him.

But virtually overnight, Miller is back, summoned from the political slumber of a successful private life to become the school district’s chief operating officer, to take charge of all matters academic and otherwise, with the mission of shaking the laggard school system to its foundations and building it up again to make it work.

His swift return was remarkable; in an hour, behind closed doors, the school board — by a slim majority — stripped Superintendent Ruben Zacarias of nearly all authority and handed it to Miller. The move inspired instant outrage among Latino activists, who’ve always stood behind Zacarias, and who challenged the legality and manner of Miller’s hasty installation. There’s talk of lawsuits, student boycotts and breaking up the school district, while Miller, calmly at the center of the storm, has set up shop and begun to do business.

It’s as though he never left.

Twice Miller has entered the portals of leadership at L.A. Unified, and each time, he’s witnessed a historic firestorm — and, in the view of some, helped fan the flames.

Miller’s first entry into the fray ended in a recall that became a referendum on the forced busing of Los Angeles school children. Miller was trounced, with 58 percent of voters favoring his ouster. Although Miller did not personally favor the busing, "It was a legal obligation," he said in an interview this week. "I had been trained as a lawyer, and I was a law professor. And meeting the obligations of the law was a primary value in my life. It came out of my personality that upholding the law was important, and I did what had to be done."

The full picture is more complex. While earning much admiration, Miller had opponents on both sides of the busing issue, and critics who castigated his style as well as his substance. For Miller, the recall was a chastening experience that informs him to this day.

"One of the things I gained from the recall campaign was a sense of perspective," said Miller this week. "Nothing that happens now will ever equal 20 percent of the pressure that there was over the integration controversy. Because of that, I know that you have to keep your eye on the strategic goal. No one day is that important. And you have to keep calm no matter what happens."

That temperament will be tested in the weeks ahead, with the very future of the school district at stake. The school board, on September 21, first appointed Miller to salvage the district’s careening school-construction efforts, which are embodied by the Belmont Learning Complex, a desperately needed high school — already the most expensive ever — that may never open, because it sits on contaminated land. Then, on October 12, the board went further, making Miller CEO of the entire school system.

As one of the architects of his sudden rise, Miller himself became part of the ensuing controversy. It was Miller and legal consultant Barry Groveman who stood before the school board proposing that Miller deserved complete and immediate management control over the entire $7 billion operation.

Outside L.A. Unified, the life of 62-year-old Howard Miller has progressed peaceably enough. His civic résumé includes staunch progressive credentials: He helped inaugurate an affirmative-action program at USC Law School and, as legal counsel, fought to secure low-cost legal representation for California immigrant farm workers. A successful real estate attorney, investor and law-school professor, Miller is also a stable family man, devoted to his wife and three sons, and long active in the charitable causes and intellectual discourse of the Westside Jewish community.

It was his friend David Abel who first pulled him back to the school district over the summer. Abel, a member of the outside committee reviewing school-bond spending, was organizing a citywide conclave at the Getty Education Institute on how to build needed schools and how these schools could revitalize neighborhoods. Miller was a hard-sell, but once involved, he became a leader in the effort, in typical Miller style. And a couple of months later, the school board seized on Miller as a vehicle to supplant Superintendent Zacarias.

Abel considers Miller brilliant, but also believes that the school board and Miller have dealt themselves a difficult hand through their treatment of Zacarias. "I wouldn’t say that one of Howard’s strengths was as a politico," said Abel. "I don’t think he has the fine ear of someone who understands positioning in politics."

 

Miller’s elevation was an extraordinary turn for a school system whose board members, in interviews, could not even specifically name the private business accomplishments that would qualify Miller for such a post. Board members have more closely scrutinized the qualifications of contractors putting in window air conditioners than they did Miller’s.

All of which has fueled talk that the hand of Mayor Richard Riordan — and his presumed disenchantment with Zacarias — is behind the elevation of Miller by the school-board majority. Three members of that voting bloc rode to office on the financial backing of Riordan and his allies.

But count on Miller to be his own driver. In a June interview, before his recent rise, Miller was not afraid to differ, in part, with the corporate theory of school governance proffered by many Riordan allies. This theory holds that L.A. Unified should be run like a corporation, with board members meeting two hours per month with two goals in mind: setting policy and evaluating whether the superintendent is performing properly.

"The idea that a board of education would only meet two hours a month is off the page," said Miller in June. "Or that it would delegate all things to the superintendent. That doesn’t work in a public enterprise, with all the legitimate interests at the table. Boards of public institutions are more complex."

While school boards should focus on setting policy, "The key to this is making sure that the staff really lets them know what’s going on . . . The real issue is the staff that runs the district. There are a lot of internal interests [on the part of staff] that dominate what goes on."

These views were formed in the crucible of an earlier L.A. Unified, after the school board appointed Miller, in 1976, to succeed a board member who’d died in office. Although he bore strong liberal credentials, Miller — only in his late 30s — also was something of a maverick for a politician, having starred, from 1969 to 1973, in a popular and well-regarded public television series called The Advocates. The show explored hot issues in the form of a courtroom trial. Miller acted as the attorney for the "liberal" viewpoint. He and his conservative counterpart cross-examined "witnesses" and orated for their cause. The moderator/judge was Michael Dukakis — the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee — and the viewing audience phoned in votes for tabulation as a "verdict."

In a two-part episode from 1970, Miller — who espoused the liberal position even when it did not coincide precisely with his own views — argued passionately that mandatory busing was a necessary remedy to segregation.

And that was the Miller the liberal majority of the school board thought they were getting, according to former board member Robert L. Docter, a professor emeritus at Cal State Northridge. Board members knew very clearly that rough times lay directly ahead on the matter of busing. "It was hoped that Miller’s image as smooth and bright — and committed to social change and minority advancement — would assist the board in resolving the turmoil and making intelligent decisions," said Docter.

The school district was then under a court order to submit an integration plan. Both the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were legally pressing the board to go further with forced integration than some board members were willing to go. At the other extreme was a nascent districtwide uprising centered among Anglo parents in the San Fernando Valley, opposing all mandatory busing.

And though Miller would later be targeted by anti-busing forces, his first vocal critics were board liberals, including Docter, who was quoted as saying of Miller’s appointment, "In seven years on the board, it’s the most grievous mistake I’ve made . . .We could have done better [selecting someone from] the phone book." Although his views have mellowed, Docter declined this week to retreat from that statement.

Part of his irritation resulted from Miller’s apparent change of heart on busing. All of a sudden, "I saw Howard Miller arguing almost totally in opposition to almost any effort to integrate the school district," said Docter, who interpreted Miller’s position as a politically motivated shift. "He was concerned with one thing: getting re-elected."

In 1977, Miller was, in fact, re-elected, while Docter, who accepted the necessity of busing, was defeated. Replacing Docter on the board was Bobbi Fiedler, who ran to oppose busing and later left the school board to serve in Congress. Fiedler joined with the board’s "conservatives" in narrowly selecting Miller as board president over Kathleen Brown Rice, the sister of then-Governor Jerry Brown.

Miller’s honeymoon with anti-busing forces was short-lived. The judge supervising integration in Los Angeles rejected a Miller-supported voluntary integration plan that relied on magnet schools. The fall-back plan, which the judge eventually approved, included busing thousands of students in grades 4 through 8. Fiedler and other busing opponents favored a legal appeal to defend the voluntary plan. Miller and the board majority opted not to risk a court-imposed plan that could prove more onerous.

 

Under the circumstances, "I hoped to use integration pressure as an opportunity to make positive changes," said Miller. "We included in the plan an end to social promotion. After my recall, that provision was removed. As part of the integration plan, we also reduced class size."

No matter. Now Miller was regarded as a traitor by anti-busing forces, and the mantle fit, in Fiedler’s view: "Howard never would have been recalled had he not changed his position," she said this week. "He was a leader on the busing plan. He pushed it publicly." Within the district, "He worked mostly behind the scenes rather than at the board meetings. By the time we got to the meetings, he had the votes rounded up." She added, "Howard rarely gets into things on the edge. He generally tends to be in the middle of things, in a leadership capacity, or he isn’t involved."

Fiedler’s characterization of Miller’s take-charge style agrees with what many say about Miller today. Back then, Miller’s modus operandi sometimes upset potential allies.

In particular, board members disliked Miller’s habit of taking private board discussions into the public arena. In an era of greater political gentility, Miller was not shy about calling news conferences to air his views and criticize others’. One district staffer still remembers the day that Miller noisily slapped down — and distributed — a budget document that he said was being improperly withheld from the public. In 1977, the board voted to sue Miller over his disclosures, but never followed through.

"It was a shock to discover that information that had been explored in executive session, concerning legal matters before the board and personnel issues — to see that information bandied about," said former board member Docter. "Miller changed the nature of that system considerably. We were basically wondering what could be said in confidence in executive session."

Added Docter, "Miller immediately wanted to swing into an administrative mode of decision-making and become sort of a subordinate superintendent."

In short, people said some of the same things about Miller that they do today about current board member David Tokofsky. Like the Miller of old, Tokofsky is envied for his good press, despised for leaking information to reporters, and regarded as a headline-grabbing micro-manager by some colleagues and administrators. But supporters love his fearlessness and insight in challenging bureaucrats and the status quo, while they also worry about whether his style undermines his effectiveness.

In 1977, the Times noted that "Miller has sought to cut administrative costs, reduce class size, add more academic courses to the curriculum, abolish use of chauffeur-driven cars by board members and block use of tax funds to pay for the district-sponsored bicentennial pageant last year. All these efforts have failed . . . His critics charge he has not been effective because he antagonizes colleagues and top administrators by pursuing issues that are sensitive and, they add, tend to be nothing more than stunts to ‘grab headlines.’"

Others took the view that Miller was, in fact, so successful in provoking change that he discomfited a stagnant institution. "He is an intelligent, forceful man," said district general counsel Richard K. Mason, who was then a county attorney assigned to the school district. "He knows how to get things done. He did not passively accept the bureaucracy. He attempted to mold the bureaucracy to his direction."

In May 1979, Miller was ousted from public office in an emotionally charged, often ugly and personal campaign. Miller tried to stay above the fray, avoiding mention of busing whenever possible.

Thereafter, anti-busing forces quickly gained sway on the school board. Mandatory busing ultimately lasted for portions of three school years before a change in state law opened the door for the current voluntary integration plan. By that time, many Anglo families, and much of the middle-class, had abandoned the school district. And a conservative wing in the Jewish community — one that would later back Richard Riordan for mayor — first gained prominence.

Miller turned his back on L.A. Unified and political life, surrendering his one-time status as a political up-and-comer.

"I went cold turkey on public office," said Miller. "I discovered that private life without the pressures of public life was very sweet."

Twenty years away is a long time. Miller was not idle. Besides raising his family and teaching, he developed a diverse legal practice. His specialties included representing investors who purchased loan contracts orphaned by the nationwide collapse of savings-and-loan institutions. He participated in real estate deals in Philadelphia. And he offered counsel to a biotech startup in Irvine.

 

He also threw himself into the affairs of the Jewish community, serving as president of the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee in the mid-1980s, and as chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of Greater Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

"Howard Miller is one of the brightest people, one of the brightest thinkers, one of the most creative thinkers I’ve ever met," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the western regional director of the American Jewish Committee. Greenebaum recently worked with Miller on the committee’s bioethics project. "He has an interesting way of looking at an issue, that brings a new light to it. With bioethics, he immediately started talking about ‘Will my grandchildren die because they choose to or because they have to?’"

Now it’s Miller’s task to sort out the big questions at school-district headquarters. Why take on all this grief, a local CEO asked him recently. "‘That’s the wrong question,’" Miller replied. "That shows the problem with the current society. When you step up to the plate and do a difficult job, the question is ‘Why are you doing this?’ I said to him, ‘The correct question is: Why aren’t you doing this?’"

A guy like Miller could come in handy, said Julian Nava, a Cal State Northridge professor who served on the board with Miller, but was not Miller’s biggest fan. "The superintendent could very well make use of a Howard Miller as a subordinate to clear the deck of unwieldy and no-longer-qualified administrators. It would make it easier if someone like Howard were hatchet man. Now it’s very difficult. The school board has tainted the whole process."

Aaron M. Fontana contributed to this story.


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