School & District Management

L.A. Board Shuts Mayor Out on New Chief

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 20, 2006 4 min read
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As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa returns to Los Angeles this week from a trade mission in Asia, he is to meet the next superintendent of his city’s public schools—a selection he intended to have a hand in as he prepares to assume substantial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District next year.

Instead, Mr. Villaraigosa will meet the Los Angeles school board’s choice for schools chief—retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III—whom he played no role in choosing despite his insistence on being involved.

The appointment of Mr. Brewer by the Los Angeles school board on Oct. 12 comes less than three months before a new state law takes effect to, in part, empower Mr. Villaraigosa and the mayors of other cities that lie within the boundaries of the Los Angeles district to ratify or veto the hiring and firing of the superintendent.

The school board, which fought fiercely to defeat the mayor’s successful legislative bid to gain some control over the school system, announced Mr. Brewer’s selection with great fanfare while the mayor was on a multiday tour of Asian countries. He will replace Superintendent Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who has served for six years, within the next month.

The news of his appointment came just a few days after the board filed a lawsuit that seeks to block the implementation of the mayor’s plan.

Mr. Villaraigosa’s top education adviser said the mayor’s office will work with Mr. Brewer, despite disappointment at being shut out of the selection process.

“When the dust from all of this settles, the superintendent must work with everybody,” said Ramon C. Cortines, a former schools chief in New York City and San Francisco and one-time interim superintendent in Los Angeles who is now the deputy mayor of education, youth, and families. “He can’t be the board’s superintendent because that’s not the way things are going to work anymore. He can’t just be the mayor’s superintendent either. He’s got to be the superintendent for the children of this city.”

Forging Ahead

Mr. Cortines said he and the mayor are forging ahead with plans to create a special district of “mayor’s schools” that Mr. Villaraigosa will oversee directly under the new law—a key component of the reform plan that the school board has challenged in its lawsuit.

Mr. Brewer, who is still negotiating the terms of his contract with the school board, acknowledged the difficult political and legal climate he will enter as he made his first public appearances around Los Angeles.

“I’m going to work with the mayor [Mr. Villaraigosa] and all of the other 26 mayors,” Mr. Brewer said during an Oct. 13 news conference. “I’m going to reach out to them. In fact, I’m going to reach out to Mayor Villaraigosa and talk to him and let him know that, listen, I want to partner with you. I want to join you in helping to educate the children of this district.”

The superintendent-to-be also sought to connect personally with the mayor, telling reporters he had dropped out of Howard University in Washington before resuming his college education at Prairie View a&m University in Prairie View, Texas. Mr. Villaraigosa dropped out of a Los Angeles high school before a teacher convinced him to return to earn his diploma.

Mr. Cortines called those statements “reasons to be hopeful. But we don’t know yet what is going to be different under this superintendent. What will change? What are his priorities going to be?”

Such questions are difficult to answer given Mr. Brewer’s lack of experience in public education.

A career military man, he rose through the Navy ranks to become the head of the Military SeaLift Command, managing a supply chain for equipment, fuel, and ammunition for U.S. forces all over the world. He was the school board’s unanimous choice from a pool of finalists that included Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Carlos A. Garcia, a former superintendent of the Clark County, Nev., public schools.

In its lawsuit in state court challenging the mayor’s plan to oversee some aspects of the 727,000-student district, the school board alleges that California’s constitution explicitly prohibits the transfer of any part of a public school system to any authority other than an elected school board. Mr. Villaraigosa, under the new state law, would be directly in charge of a cluster of low-performing schools with as many as 55,000 students that would operate under a chief executive chosen solely by the mayor.

The suit also asserts that Mr. Villaraigosa violated the state constitution by seeking legislative approval for his plan instead of local voter approval. Lastly, the suit argues that the city charter of Los Angeles and the charters of the 26 other cities that are in the boundaries of Los Angeles Unified do not include provisions that allow mayors to supervise schools.

In his power-sharing plan for the district, Mr. Villaraigosa would dominate the council of mayors. As superintendent, Mr. Brewer would manage most of the contracting, budgeting, and hiring in the district, while the elected school board remains responsible for setting policy and handling collective bargaining—a concession the mayor made to win support from teachers’ unions.

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