By Larry Aubry
David L. Brewer III’s brief stint as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) represented high hope and expectations gone awry. Convinced that he had the requisite leadership, management, and political skills to navigate LAUSD’s notoriously tough terrain, Blacks on the selection committee successfully lobbied on his behalf. Apparently, they wanted to hire someone quickly which may have clouded assessment of Brewer’s qualifications for the job.
Technically, race was not a factor, in truth, it was. Being Black, Brewer was probably also expected to address the specific needs of Black students. Unfortunately, he proved lacking overall, and in not championing sustainable programs designed to improve educational outcomes for Black students.
(At the height of euphoria over Brewer’s selection, I suggested caution. My column, “What’s All the Shouting About Before the Curtain Rises?” attempted to balance, not dampen enthusiasm.)
Brewer failed to provide leadership crucial for moving the district forward- or strategies focused on Black children. And certain accomplishments attributed to Brewer warranted disclaimers. His claim that student performance improved on his watch was misleading; it did improve, but the process was well underway before Brewer arrived. He inherited a humongous mess, including the payroll debacle and shortly after he arrived, a different, not altogether supportive, school board was in office. Brewer never adjusted to Los Angeles’ landscape but did do commendable public relations and lobbying for the district.
Some described Brewer as “handcuffed” to Deputy Superintendent Ramon Cortines, but Brewer hired Cortines himself to preside over day-to-day operations, However, since arriving, Cortines has virtually run the district with Brewer functioning more as the figurehead. Nonetheless, he says hiring Cortines was one of his major accomplishments.
Many Blacks believe that Brewer’s departure was “racially motivated” and orchestrated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This may or may not be true, but what is clear is that Brewer’s leaving did have racial implications. Race has always been significant, but largely unattended, throughout LAUSD’s history. The school board should adopt new policy to improve overall race relations. The ever-growing diversity of students and ethnic communities in Los Angeles makes such a policy all the more necessary. It would also provide an opportunity for collaboration between the mayor and school district to improve racial/ethnic relations in schools and surrounding communities.
UTLA, LAUSD’s largest teachers union, also figured in Brewer’s ouster. Its president regularly accused him of not being up to the task of running the district, but never mentioned that teachers could also play a more prominent role in improving student performance and racial/ethnic relations. Their drumbeat lament over LAUSD’s treatment of teachers is likely true, but their responsibility to help students is often obscured by the primacy of personal and/or union priorities.
Considering Blacks had a major role in Brewer’s getting the job, they too contributed to his departure by not critiquing his performance. Others derelict include parents, teachers, administrators, school boards and public officials. (Previous Urban Perspectives columns have cited the LAUSD school board, its Black member, and Brewer for failing to consistently provide leadership on improving Black student’s performance.)
Blacks’ responded with unaccustomed unity to the school board president’s ill-fated, bungled attempt to dismiss Brewer. But the flood of E-mails and phone calls that bombarded her office was short-lived. Brewer, who had pledged to fight all the way, suddenly capitulated, indicating he would accept a “fair” financial buy-out: He got over a half million dollars saying that he was leaving, “for the children and to avoid inflaming racial tension.” Brewer exits with a loud whimper, not a bang.
Two days after Brewer’s buy-out, a diverse group of Black leaders, and others, held a press conference in front of Dorsey High School in South Central Los Angeles. They met, not to deconstruct Brewer’s exit, but to use it as a springboard for a collective effort to demand quality education for Black students. (Expecting something juicier, some mainstream media left the press conference disappointed.)
The group’s concerns and demands include: Black representation in the selection process for a new superintendent; development of a task force to address the specific needs of Black students, and a meeting with the school board and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The press conference signaled the potential for sustained political pressure for providing Black children a quality education.
The confluence of a truncated assessment of Brewer’s qualifications, the school board’s failure to develop performance standards for him, broad-based perception of racially tinged issues, and most important, Brewer’s inability to provide strong, decisive leadership-all contributed to his unfortunate, but arguably inevitable demise. Lessons learned?
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.