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The Short Season of Howard Miller

It was an overheard comment, not intended for public consumption, but it very clearly spelled the end of a short but intense career. Howard Miller, said new L.A. schools chief Roy Romer to a district insider he considered an ally, was someone “who had a thousand ideas but has trouble carrying any of them through.”

And indeed, just days later, Miller, the district‘s chief operating officer, announced his resignation. The irony in Miller’s abrupt departure is that he, as much as any district official, started the revolution that led to Romer‘s hire. Now, less than a year later, he will see his own district career go the way of Robespierre -- the incorruptible, uncompromising French Revolutionary who sent royalty to the guillotine, only to ultimately perish under its blade himself.

Miller, of course, will depart in firm possession of his head; it will even be held high. He insists that no one pushed him out the door. And he leaves behind a remarkably altered district. Working under Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, Miller purged the school system of a regiment of incumbent officials, reconstructed the facilities division, ratcheted up efforts to provide students with clean bathrooms and sufficient textbooks, canceled the star-crossed Belmont Learning Complex project and angered teachers by insisting on salary incentives linked to student test scores.

“Some of Howard’s decisions have riled a lot of stakeholders,” said a district source. “In his defense, he was there to shake things up, as was Ray Cortines. Howard didn‘t have the deftness of Ray. And right now, he is a potential irritant in labor negotiations, and in the effort to build and repair schools. Someone else can now come in and pick up the torch, finishing the job without the baggage that Howard has accumulated in the last six to nine months.”

In short, Miller and Cortines have created an opportunity for incoming Superintendent Roy Romer to assemble his own team, to avoid being undermined by ambitious or recalcitrant career bureaucrats. And if Romer can turn the educational ship of state, Miller and Cortines will deserve much credit for having made it possible.

As recently as a month ago, it appeared as though Miller, 62, had positioned himself to be part of that ongoing effort for some time to come. For one thing, he constituted one-third of the district’s three-person negotiating team with the teachers union. The other two -- Interim Superintendent Cortines and interim school-board counsel Richard Sheehan -- were long ago expected to leave as soon as July 1. And Miller‘s staff certainly thought he was sticking around, as did school-board member Valerie Fields, in an interview on May 5.

“Howard will be around longer [than June 30],” said Fields at the time. She added that no formal agreement had been reached: “It’s just an understanding. As much continuity as we can have will be beneficial. We can‘t have everybody walk out July 1. That would be a disaster.”

In recent months, however, board members who once raved about Miller commented in interviews that Miller, a real estate attorney by trade, is more a lawyer than a manager, and better at having ideas than at implementing them. They hinted that the district needed better direction and follow-through. “Good lawyers make lousy managers,” said one.

The new organizational chart -- which was assembled with Miller’s input -- has no obvious place for him. Its flattened management structure has school principals reporting to one of 11 district superintendents, who will, in turn, report directly to Romer.

As long as Miller worked with Interim Superintendent Cortines, the revised format was irrelevant to Miller‘s role, because he functioned as Cortines’ partner -- a near-equal: They met every morning to divide up tasks and update each other. “I had a unique partnership with Ray Cortines,” Miller noted in an interview this week, “one of the best in my life.” No such arrangement exists with Romer, and, perhaps more significantly, no power brokers inside or outside the district are pushing for it.

“I realized how much of the pleasure in what I have been doing comes out of my partnership with Ray Cortines,” said Miller. “To go forward without him would be a very different experience. And it‘s clear that Superintendent Romer wants to organize senior leadership in a different way. And he is absolutely entitled to. I entirely support that.”

To some degree, Miller worked himself right out of a job by overseeing professional hires capable of outperforming him in their areas of specialty. Miller would be hard-pressed to match the real-estate-management expertise of the newly hired managers in the facilities division. Nor does he have the school-district budgetary experience of Chief Financial Officer Joe Zeronian. And though Miller relishes diving into education matters, he is not the kind of credentialed, high-powered academic the school board might seek to pair with Romer, who has little education experience.

Nor is he the business-management expert Mayor Riordan and his confederates might hope to thrust on the school board. During the search process that yielded Romer, a few corporate-CEO types were considered for the top job. Some of these candidates have ties to the mayor’s circle; they remain on the table as potential nominees for a refashioned version of Miller‘s job. Among them, for example, could be Liam McGee, the president of Southern California commercial banking for Bank of America. Moving Miller out creates a potential opening.

But it is the presence of Romer himself who most made Miller seem vestigial. Miller’s role under Cortines included managing tough political negotiations behind the scenes, as well as standing in as the public face of the school district. In Romer, the popular, three-term Colorado governor who chaired the Democratic National Committee, the school district has acquired a political animal extraordinaire.

“Howard was the one who was trying to make deals with the politicians,” commented one district insider, “and that‘s what Romer does, and Romer probably does that better than Howard. Romer is a professional deal-maker. I really don’t think we need two deal-makers.”

For an eventful nine months, Miller was a focal point in the school district‘s transition from a lackluster past to a more ambitious, if uncertain, future. In September, the school board, by a 4-3 vote, appointed Miller to be a school-facilities czar, charged with getting old schools repaired and new ones built. Miller quickly discovered the district was fatally short on land, money, personnel and planning. And he was able to work no miracles.

Then, in October, Miller allowed himself to be put forward as the CEO of the entire school system. Board members approved the move by another 4-3 vote, effectively wresting control of L.A. Unified from Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. The ham-handed coup triggered a leadership crisis and widespread protests, as well as lingering bitterness and distrust. When the dust settled, board members had bought out Zacarias and brought in Interim Superintendent Cortines. Miller remained as the chief operating officer.

The Zacarias episode did nothing for Miller’s popularity within the school-district rank and file. Opponents also assailed his salary -- about $16,000 a month, the same level as Zacarias -- and his health-benefits package. And teachers resented his insistence on linking teacher raises to test scores: “In order for the school system to survive, literally, we‘ve got to refocus entirely on student achievement,” Miller said this week, “and these test scores have got to get better, or more disturbing things will happen than simply talking about incentives based on student performance. Test scores have got to be part of the discussion. Show improvement on student tests,” he admonished teachers, “and your salaries will go to places far beyond what you’re now imagining.”

On this one, Cortines did not present a united front. “I don‘t believe in individual merit pay,” said Cortines in a recent interview. “I believe in group incentives. I think the unions are not the adversary. The unions are who we are.”

This episode delineated a good-copbad-cop interplay between Cortines and Miller, often over issues in which the two officials had a genuine difference of opinion. With the Belmont Learning Complex, Cortines, moved by the pleas of Belmont students, wavered on Miller’s recommendation to abandon the site. But Miller stuck with his hard line, and the school board sided with Miller. In this instance, Miller provided cover for a school-board majority heavily tilted against the project, which it had inherited from an earlier board. Miller‘s uncompromising front gave board members a political refuge.

The episode also would serve to demonstrate how Miller’s elevation diluted his focus on his original mission: repairing and building schools. It also would underscore his declining influence with the school board.

The project to build a new Belmont high school, atop a shallow oil field, was ostensibly stalled over environmental concerns: The oil field will always emit small amounts of explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide. State experts, however, have not ruled out installing an effective, reasonably priced safety system. So when Miller recommended canceling the project, he was practically obliged to pledge alternative school sites that could be delivered more rapidly, cheaply and safely to a neighborhood that has long suffered from school overcrowding. Several proposed alternatives quickly fell to the wayside over environmental concerns or other issues, while the board failed to authorize studying others.

It‘s not the first time that Miller has had to adjust in midstream. His push to get state school-construction funds stalled over a new, extended environmental-review process. And then there was his school-conversion plan. Faced with catastrophic overcrowding, particularly at the high school level, Miller proposed building dozens of small elementary schools. These schools could be built relatively quickly because they required smaller lots and fewer amenities, such as chemistry labs or football fields. Existing school sites could then be reconfigured as needed to serve the upper grades. The plan, despite receiving initial acclaim, died in the face of community opposition.

“I think it was a brilliant plan,” commented board member David Tokofsky, a friend and admirer of Miller, “but he didn’t line up the people on the ground you need to have supporting you.”

Board member Victoria Castro, a Miller critic, offered a harsher interpretation: “Miller went out there with this ‘brilliant idea’ without doing his homework. And there have been other incidents like that, where Miller ends up having to retract. Like when he said the old Terminal Annex was the solution for a school in the Belmont area. As soon as it was announced, I started to get environmental reports about how bad that site was. I want to say, ‘How come you don’t know that, Miller?‘ We’ve lost time, and time is money. And it‘s also a loss of services to children. To me, that’s very serious.”

Miller did not, in fact, fail on all fronts. He reaped a clear dividend from his much-criticized decision to hire the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps prepared federal applications to update wiring at schools, and as a result, the district will be eligible to collect more than $400 million in funding to connect schools to the Internet. Board member Tokofsky also credits Miller with vastly improving the district contracting process.

But Miller sometimes frustrated even his allies. “I have less information and less of an ability to follow what the school district is doing than I did with the previous administration,” complained David Abel, a member of the oversight committee on local school-bond spending and a person who strongly supported the hiring of Miller. “It‘s very hard for us to judge what progress, if any, we’ve made.”

All of which leaves open the question of who provided the tutorial on Miller for new Superintendent Romer. His comment, about Miller having 1,000 ideas but not following through, was reported to the Weekly from a reliable source who heard the comment. And it was reportedly delivered by Romer with the air of conventional wisdom -- in that arena, conventional wisdom usually emanates from members of the school-board majority, the mayor or those in Riordan‘s close circle, such as UCLA management guru Bill Ouchi or billionaire businessman Eli Broad.

Evidently, some in that group would agree with Miller’s own analysis: “This is a good point for the district to move on. I don‘t in any sense regard myself as indispensable to the success of the school district.”