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School's Out for the Winter

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Christmas giveth and Christmas taketh away. Depending on how you look at it, former L.A. schools chief David Brewer got a lump of coal in his stocking this year, or he got the best present he could have asked for--or secretly wished for but couldn't ask for, until circumstances a couple of weeks ago forced the issue. After two years on the job, Brewer walked away from his brief tenure as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District with a contract buyout of more than a half million dollars; though he initially declared he would fight to stay put, he didn't. You have to have other people fighting to help you stay put, and in the end--actually, in the beginning--Brewer simply didn't have those people.

It's hard to remember now that Brewer was brought on two years ago with great fanfare by a cadre of folk who, like him, were African-American. That wasn't the only reason for the fanfare, but it was a good part of it. The bigger part was the mighty political tussle going on at the time over who would gain or retain control of the district-- the mayor, the school board (some of whom sided with the mayor), or some entirely new entity that might emerge when the dust settled. Board member Marguerite Poindexter Lamotte and former state senator and current county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were among those who championed Brewer, educationally inexperienced but unpolluted by L.A. politics, as just the antidote the moribund district needed. Lamotte and others were also looking to seize the moment: the mayor was out of town, and the question of who or what would lead the district was still undecided by the courts. Add to that the political coup of getting a black superintendent to head a district overwhelmingly populated by Latino students, and the choice of Brewer was downright inspired, at least to his supporters at the time.

But Brewer was beleaguered from the start. Everybody saw that he was decent guy but a civic-leader novice who was hamstrung by a combination of a divided school board, an entrenched bureaucracy that seemed to dig its heels in even deeper with his arrival, and his own ineptitude or distaste for getting that bureaucracy to do what he wanted. But what did he want? Hard to say. Brewer promised change but had a problem with the vision thing, and that sunk any real hope of reform. When you're putting out fires as superintendents always must--explaining why the payroll isn't running on time, figuring out positions on the latest teacher sexual abuse scandal--you need the vision to remind the public that a big urban district isn't all disaster and dysfunction. It's a system with the potential to deliver good, solid, even creative instruction on a scale that a city the size of L.A. needs it delivered.

We're still waiting.

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