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.

Now, with Cortines back at LAUSD, the mayor has gained much of the influence over the district that he failed to grab when he sponsored a school district takeover law, approved by his allies in the state legislature, which was later tossed out by the California courts as unconstitutional.

Mike Lansing, a former school board member who was on the board when it voted to hire Brewer, sees it differently, dismissing the “Machiavellian thoughts” behind the hiring of both Brewer and Cortines.

“I think Ray is a good addition, and the two of them are a good team,” Lansing says. “If everybody gives them a chance, it is the best-case scenario.”

The mayor’s people say much the same thing. “The mayor believes that there couldn’t be a better time for Ray to take a leadership role at the school district,” mayoral spokeswoman Emma Soichet says, crediting Cortines’ “leadership” while running the mayor’s Partnership for L.A. Schools with creating “a real sense of urgency around transforming our public schools.”

But as the Weekly and others have reported, under Cortines, the partnership’s reform effort remained vague and heavy on previously tried ideas.

MEANWHILE, BREWER HIMSELF HAS continued to stumble. Criticisms against him include the district’s inability to improve poor scores on state aptitude tests among middle-school students; the disastrous teacher-payroll debacle, which Brewer failed for months to fix; and the district’s questionable spending, such as $175 million on consultants.

Lansing, who spent several years on the board and was regarded as a straight shooter, notes that many of Brewer’s biggest problems were inherited, including the new computerized, $95 million payroll system that accidentally overpaid and underpaid teachers for more than nine months.

On June 20, the Daily News called for Brewer to resign, describing him as “utterly unable” to oversee the bureaucracy. But some of Brewer’s detractors say he will not be forced out anytime soon. Regalado contends that, even if Villaraigosa privately wants his allies on the school board to oust Brewer, he is far more worried about losing the black voting bloc in the March mayoral elections, which could happen if Villaraigosa is seen as having engineered the ouster of a black civic leader, like Brewer. Jumping into the potentially ugly racial fray, the NAACP somewhat pointedly named Brewer one of its “Men of Valor” at an awards ceremony just this month.

“He doesn’t want to appear to be ousting an incumbent African-American anywhere, even one who is not doing a very good job of administering a school district,” Regalado claims.

Under this fairly widely held theory of Los Angeles racial politics, Villaraigosa wants to avoid the racial payback scenario that brought down former Mayor James Hahn. Incumbent Hahn lost to Villaraigosa after alienating black voters — who had been a key part of Hahn’s voter base — when he refused to renew the contract of former Police Chief Bernard Parks.

At this point, most LAUSD watchers seem to feel it’s unlikely that the school board will come up with the money required to buy out Brewer’s contract. Hiring Cortines may have been a compromise between Brewer and the board, providing a way to create a dignified exit for Brewer at some future date. Whether that happens sooner or later, Cortines promises he is “here for the long haul.”

LA Weekly