A leadership change at the LAUSD

These last days of the year are also the last days on the job for L.A. Unified Superintendent David Brewer. He leaves his position almost two years before his contract is up. Earlier this month, most of the school board voted to buy out the remaining time on his contract. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez examines Brewer's record.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Retired vice admiral David Brewer made his first public appearance as L.A. Unified's new superintendent just over two years ago.

David Brewer: Well good morning. I am glad to be in L.A. I think Los Angeles is a fabulous city. My wife and I spent many, many, many days, weeks in this great city. And I'm looking forward to joining you in educating the children of Los Angeles Unified School District.

Guzman-Lopez: Brewer's predecessor, former Colorado governor Roy Romer, had retired a victorious general. Romer had helped to improve elementary school reading scores and to lead a major school construction program. At Brewer's first official meeting, then-board member David Tokofsky projected even higher expectations.

David Tokofsky: There's so much in our children that can be unleashed into great, imaginative, high levels of success. I know you're the exact person we've been looking for to take that energy from our children and transform this entire district and this entire county into a global moment.

Guzman-Lopez: Brewer, in response, expressed his eagerness to fulfill those hopes.

Brewer: I spent 36 years fighting that foreign enemy. I'm now here to fight that domestic enemy. As crime, ignorance, and poverty, and that's what I'm here for.

Guzman-Lopez: But Brewer remained an outsider to Southland educators and civic leaders. In one of his first acts, Brewer met privately at a Huntington Park Mexican restaurant with the mayors of southeast L.A. County cities served by L.A. Unified. He promised to listen and act on their concerns. Many district students and their parents are Spanish-speakers. Brewer pledged to become one, too.

Brewer: My wife has already told me, "You will learn Spanish, Brewer." I will.

Guzman-Lopez: His most critical meeting followed, with L.A.'s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. For more than a year Villaraigosa had lobbied for an official role in school district administration.

L.A. Unified's board appointed Brewer without the mayor's consultation. Despite that, Brewer predicted both men would join forces for the sake of the schools.

Brewer: What the first thing the mayor's going to find out is that I'm his man in terms of partnering. He's going to find out we have a lot in common. And that means that I am interested in educating these children.

Guzman-Lopez: The two met and praised one another after some very public initial meetings. Then, their talks tapered off. At the time, Villaraigosa was busy moving to unseat board members who'd appointed Brewer.

That worked – three school board candidates buoyed by the mayor's endorsements and fundraising power won seats to create a Villaraigosa-endorsed majority at L.A. Unified. Pomona College politics professor David Menefee Libey said the new board clouded Brewer's future prospects.

David Menefee Libey: He was in an impossible situation where he was brought in to be superintendent during, by a board that was in conflict with the mayor and not given a clear set of expectations and standards he could measure his performance by.

Guzman-Lopez: Menefee Libey said Brewer was capable. He continued a push for high school reform and higher graduation rates. L.A. Unified test scores did climb higher than the state average. School district administration has been in a state of crisis for years, Menefee Libey said, and that's led to low public confidence.

Problems with the district's new payroll system sunk that confidence even lower. It took more than six months for the flood of paycheck mistakes to slow to a trickle.

African-American leaders who'd supported Brewer began to express concerns about his effectiveness. This year, a week after Thanksgiving, school board president Monica Garcia moved to oust Brewer. He suggested at first that he'd fight the move – but then he turned an about-face.

Brewer: I am asking the Los Angeles school board to shield our students from this contentious debate and honor the buyout provisions of my contract.

Guzman-Lopez: The board bought out Brewer's contract for about half-a-million dollars – and in his place appointed veteran schools leader and Villaraigosa ally Ramon Cortines to a three-year term.

Board president Garcia suggested that she and her colleagues need to establish clearer expectations for Brewer's replacement.

Monica Garcia: Looking forward, there's absolutely, accountability is with all leadership of the district. And being clear on goals and roles is something that we all have work through. Change is necessary throughout our organization and that includes the board of education.

Guzman-Lopez: That strikes some education observers as the same flowery language of high expectations the board would roll out like a red carpet for any new superintendent. Ramon Cortines will walk that path starting New Year's Day, in the hope that he can transform L.A. Unified.

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