Government Lies, Corruption and Mismanagement

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David Brewer Makes More Than $300,000 in Salary Alone...and People are Asking Why? and For What?

The L.A. Unified school board seems ready to finally admit its blockheaded blunder in hiring a Navy man with no education experience to run the nation's second-largest school district, Brewer is fighting to keep his job. And he's still collecting -- in expense account payments alone -- the equivalent of one year's pay for a starting teacher.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer
LAUSD flounders as superintendent rakes it in: David Brewer makes a lot of money for a man with no education credentials, and navigating the school district is still a parent's nightmare.
Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2008

I had lunch with Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. David Brewer earlier this year at a restaurant near downtown Los Angeles and almost choked. Not on the food, but the prices.

I wasn't that hungry, fortunately, so I had the Chinese chicken salad, which cost an eye-popping $28.95. Brewer wasn't famished either, so he just had an appetizer, the crab cakes, and those ran $16.95.

Over lunch, he defended himself against widespread criticism that he's the wrong man for the job and has been a big disappointment. But instead of talking about students, he went on and on about building a "matrix" system and "vertical" as well as "horizontal articulation." By the end of it I had an expensive stomachache.

The L.A. Times picked up the tab, but Brewer had chosen the restaurant and he seemed to know his way around there, so I started wondering if his tastes always run so high-end. To find out, I called the school district and requested all of his expense reports dating back to his hiring in 2006.

When the documents arrived, much of the information had been blacked out. Why? Because several high-level officials use the same credit card account, I was told, and I hadn't asked for their expenses; only Brewer's.

But there wasn't much listed for Brewer, other than airfare and hotels, so I asked if perhaps his restaurant tabs had been blacked out as well?

No, I was told by the district's lawyer. He pays for meals and other things from an expense account that was written into his contract. He just gets that money and doesn't have to account for it.

How much?

Forty-five grand, I was told.

Not bad at all. I could see myself developing a Pacific Dining Car habit with that kind of pocket money.

He also gets a $3,000 monthly housing allowance, the district lawyer added. All of which sits on top of his $300,000-a-year salary.


Just a month before that lunch, I had been to a meeting at my daughter's public school, where parents were asked to donate $500 per child or we'd lose three instructional aides. No telling what will be asked of us now that bigger cuts are looming.

Meanwhile, as the L.A. Unified school board seems ready to finally admit its blockheaded blunder in hiring a Navy man with no education experience to run the nation's second-largest school district, Brewer is fighting to keep his job. And he's still collecting -- in expense account payments alone -- the equivalent of one year's pay for a starting teacher.

Friday morning I had breakfast at a more reasonably priced restaurant, the Original Pantry Cafe, with Ben Austin, (see below - Editor) a current school board candidate and former deputy to ex-Mayor Richard Riordan. Austin, who now works as a consultant for the Green Dot charter schools, said he'd give the heave-ho to the admiral if he had a vote, but the problems are bigger than Brewer.

They're tinkering with a bureaucracy that needs to be blown up, Austin said.

"These are revolutionary times and they're going with pilot programs."

The only way to look at the job, Austin said, whether you're an administrator or board member, a teacher or union official, is to point to the nearest school and ask yourself:

"Would I send my own daughter there?"

A lot of public elementary schools in L.A. Unified, like the one in my neighborhood, are pretty good. But once middle and high school come into play, most people have three lousy choices:

Take whatever you get at the neighborhood public school.

Come up with the $25,000 for private school.

Or devote half your life to cracking the magnet school code.

My wife told me the other day that it's time to start playing that game. Before she completed the first sentence, I felt stabbing pains behind my eyeballs, but she had only begun the torture.

The way it works, she said, is that we have to start applying to magnet schools.

Say what?

Our daughter's perfectly happy at her neighborhood school.

We're supposed to apply to schools she's not likely to get into, she explained, because then "you get points if you're rejected." You work toward building up enough of them that by middle school you've got enough priority to get into the magnet you were aiming for all along.

She did not appear to be kidding.

"What if we apply and she gets accepted now, at one of the magnet schools we don't want her to go to yet?" I asked.

"I don't know," my wife said.

This is why people move to South Pasadena.

And it's why we don't have time for more of David Brewer's on-the-job training.

As for the race angle and reports that some local leaders would like to keep Brewer, an African American, where he is, I say that if the house is burning and children are at risk, you want experience at the fire hose, regardless of skin color.

Austin said he thought Brewer had good intentions. But, he noted, 90% of the district's students don't go to college and 50% don't graduate.

"It's an understatement to say the system is broken. And you need more than just little cuts in bureaucracy; you need to change the job of the bureaucracy."

Austin believes there's hope in the Green Dot model, which is now getting its most challenging test with its recent takeover of L.A. Unified's perennial disaster: Locke High School. It's way too soon to know if dividing the school into small campuses, and giving teachers more authority but requiring more accountability, will produce results.

But as it is, Austin said, there's little accountability in L.A. Unified. Brewer got a four-year contract and Dining Car perks with no performance standards, and although the vast majority of teachers are solid, getting rid of the lousy ones is mission impossible.

"It's all about politics and never about the kids," Austin said.

Brewer, if you ask me, doesn't deserve as much blame as do school board members who were gullible enough to be dazzled by a guy with laudable desire but no applicable credentials.

For future reference:

If a superintendent candidate comes in quoting the corporate management book "Good to Great," as Brewer did, suggest that he apply to run Nabisco, not a 700,000-child school district.

Of course, the perks probably wouldn't be nearly as good as they are at L.A. Unified.

How Superintendent David Brewer Ran Aground
The admiral's sinking ship
Patrick Range McDonald, LA Weekly, published: December 27, 2007

After five months of political battles with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his allies in Sacramento, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David L. Brewer III needed to find his focus. The retired Navy vice admiral was still a newcomer to the nation’s second-largest public-schools system, and he was utterly inexperienced as a public educator. So, in April 2007, Brewer made a promising and low-key move.

Quietly billed as a “superintendents’ weekend retreat,” the L.A. Weekly has learned, an invite from Brewer asked three noted educators to talk shop with him at the West Los Angeles campus of Loyola Marymount University, a short drive from his home in Playa del Rey.

Brewer’s guests were no slouches. Rudy Crew launched a major turnaround in New York City as the public-schools chancellor and later became the superintendent of Miami–Dade County Public Schools, one of five nationwide finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Among the country’s most prestigious awards, the Broad Prize is given to urban districts whose schools reflect the best overall performance and improvement in student achievement, while reducing stubborn achievement gaps among poor and minority students. It includes a hefty $1 million in college scholarships.

The two other highly regarded educators were Garden Grove Unified School District Superintendent Laura Schwalm, whose much-improved, racially mixed schools won the Broad Prize in 2004, and former San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, an outspoken black reformer who stared down that city’s old guard, earning her district a Broad finalist nod in 2005. Now, Ackerman is Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at Columbia University and superintendent-in-residence at the Broad Superintendents Academy in L.A.

All in all, Brewer was meeting with some of the best and most experienced minds in the country — no-nonsense reformers with a track record of turning around public schools.

On the first day of the retreat, Brewer met his guests in an empty classroom at 8:30 in the morning. “We wanted to hear out David,” Crew tells the Weekly, “and understand where he was thinking about things.”

According to Crew, Brewer arrived at the meeting “eager to take on the challenge” of improving L.A. Unified and “very interested in the nature of the work.” But Crew also noticed that he was “very much overwhelmed, in some ways, by the things going on around him.”

A newbie coping with the remnants of an unsuccessful mayoral takeover, Brewer was falling behind in important ways: He had failed to fill key positions on his senior management team, and to fully develop a coherent academic vision for a district with 878 schools and 694,288 students. And he was earning nasty headlines over the disastrous new computerized payroll system, Business Tools for Schools, which went sideways as thousands of the district’s 45,473 teachers received inaccurate paychecks — some getting under- or overpaid for months.

As the meeting unfolded, the four educators shared their priorities. For the seasoned turnaround experts, it was all about the students. Crew, who is also black, told Brewer to focus on low-performing schools as soon as he could. “It was true for me in New York and Miami as well,” Crew says of his own experiences.

Ackerman recalls how she stressed raising student achievement, addressing inequities between high- and low-performing students and creating accountability among teachers and bureaucrats.

Yet when it was Brewer’s turn to lay out his priorities, he went off in a completely different direction that left the übersupes uneasy: Working with politicians in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he told them, was his major focus.

“We see it in a different context,” says Ackerman. “The core business is improving achievement for students. Then everything else supports that. Without that clarity, it’s a struggle. But if you put kids at the center of everything, things will always get better.”

On the last day of the retreat, Crew, Schwalm and Ackerman handed Brewer a list of priorities, with heavy emphasis on achievement in the classroom rather than at City Hall. “There’s a tremendous need, certainly in the first year, to create and sustain a vision and to make it tangible,” says Crew, adding that speechmaking needed to be ditched at some point for day-to-day work.

The educators suggested that Brewer quickly hire senior staff, create an overall strategic plan, engage parents, address problems with low-performing schools, and shape a detailed accountability plan for teachers and bureaucrats.

“We left him with some pretty good impulses,” Crew says.

Seven months later, Crew and Ackerman, who stay in touch with the superintendent mostly through e-mails, are still waiting.

Says Crew, “He really needs to take this onto himself.” Ackerman is even more blunt: “He can’t afford a second year that’s a repeat of the first year.”

Instead, Brewer’s cheerleading persona, paired with his lack of action, has spawned embittered employees who call him “Admiral” to his face in a nod to tradition, but who say it mockingly behind his back. One-quarter of his four-year contract has vanished with no concrete accomplishments and no apparent strategy for improving student achievement or lackluster teaching. And Brewer and his still-incomplete senior management team play a constant game of catch-up, creating a ripple effect of delayed reform efforts and unfocused ideas.

Instead of switching gears and dedicating more time to the creation of strong math and reading programs for middle and high school students — his core responsibility to stanch the high dropout rate, experts and educators say — Brewer is still preoccupied with politics, recently hiring Democratic consultant Michael Bustamante for $15,000 a month to reverse his spiraling unpopularity.

“With that kind of retainer, he is not editing press releases,” says media-crisis expert Scott Schmidt, pooh-poohing the district spin that Bustamante is just a routine public-relations hire.

Brewer must also contend with teachers who are incensed about their paychecks and angry about middle school and high school literacy programs they say mistakenly try to bolster self-esteem rather than basic learning skills. And the aloof superintendent has let a power vacuum develop that racial and economic factions are seeking to fill. To top it off, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — Brewer’s off-and-on nemesis — has in recent months offered very few concrete plans of his own for improved schools, leaving the superintendent to take political hits that some fear could force his early departure.

Brewer cannot do “what the mayor is doing, and disappear from the press” on the issue of school reform, says former L.A. Unified board member David Tokofsky. “It’s somewhat of a brilliant political move, actually,” he says of Villaraigosa. The struggles of the mayor, whose school takeover failed miserably and whose own competing “Schoolhouse” reform landed with a thud and vanished from the public eye, throw the mistakes made by Brewer into starker relief.

And Brewer seems strangely determined to make things worse for himself. In a move last month that some observers found particularly appalling, district staff spent time, money and effort to compile a spiffy-looking pamphlet that spun his lagging first 12 months as a dubious-sounding “Year of Listening and Learning.” When Brewer finally presented his oft-delayed, all-but-the-kitchen-sink reform-plan outline to the school board on December 4, critics inevitably asked why he spent 2007 listening — not doing.

High school teacher Mike Stryer, who came downtown after his classes to hear Brewer out, grabbed the chance during a public comment period to eyeball his big boss, sitting just a few feet away, dismissing his reform agenda as a “hastily construed smorgasbord of ideas” that is “so vague it confuses goals with tactics.” Brewer stared back, but he had nobody to blame but himself.

That’s not at all how analysts, the media, educators or community leaders thought things would go when the school board, openly exhilarated by their choice, unanimously selected the personable Navy leader on October 12, 2006, to succeed outgoing superintendent Roy Romer. Romer, a former governor of Colorado, had been the first effective superintendent in L.A. in two decades, with a strong record in building new schools and requiring solid instruction.

“Romer always talked about construction and instruction,” says former board president Caprice Young, who hired him. “His main strength was carrying out a vision.”

Unlike Brewer, Romer hired a senior management team in the first month.

An even more dramatic contrast to the camera-loving Brewer was the way Romer declined press interviews for weeks so he could concentrate on the nuts and bolts of his job. The former governor also stood up to the teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, furious over Romer’s order that grade-school teachers spend at least two hours per day on reading instruction — his shock therapy for a district churning out tens of thousands of functionally illiterate children each year. It was a radical move that educators now widely accept.

Within a few years, Romer presided over a dramatic increase of student test scores in reading and math, particularly at the elementary level.

“(L.A. Unified’s) worst schools today are better than their average schools in 2000,” says longtime education expert John Mockler, former executive director of the California State Board of Education. “That’s an outstanding change,” marking the first sustained turnaround in nearly a generation in L.A.

Although test scores among middle and high school students rose over that same period, according to Mockler, they have much further to go. Romer’s next plan was to start rehabilitating secondary schools. (Romer declined to discuss his superintendency with the Weekly.)

In 2005, however, Romer faced a vociferous critic in the person of newly elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. According to former board member Tokofsky, the mayor “poisoned” the political climate to such a degree that it was nearly impossible to push meaningful reform or seriously address the dropout rate in the middle schools and high schools.

“When you declare all of the schools are failures,” says Tokofsky, “it’s hard to properly motivate people.”

Villaraigosa and his allies seemed not to grasp that test scores in L.A. were doing something they had rarely done — rising. He sought to take over the district with a special state law called AB 1381, which, had it not been tossed out by the courts, would have shifted decision making from the seven-member elected school board to a superintendent overseen by a “council of mayors” — with a lead role for Los Angeles’ mayor. Romer, meanwhile, signaled that he would soon leave after six years on the job. The board wanted not only a strong replacement to carry on Romer’s work, but a leader who could battle the then-popular and charismatic mayor.

During a nationwide search, according to Tokofsky, Maria Ott, the district’s chief academic officer at the time, proved to be a standout candidate who really knew the business of public education. But, Tokofsky says, several board members found her “boring” because good PR was high on their list.

“She was talking folk, when the mayor was rock & roll,” Tokofsky explains. Ott lacked charisma, in other words, and the only candidate who shined in that area was the untried David Brewer.

“(Brewer) was hired because he was nontraditional leadership,” says then board member Mike Lansing, now executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor. Defending the hire, Lansing points to Brewer’s “experience working with a large work force” in several shipboard posts and a two-year stint as vice chief of naval education in Florida.

“He spoke very well for the district, and that was important,” says current board member Julie Korenstein, who also voted to hire him. “We hoped he would learn quickly,” she says wistfully.

On November 13, 2006, Brewer took his first official steps inside district headquarters downtown, at 333 South Beaudry Avenue. With an annual salary of $300,000, the retired admiral was also outfitted with a car, a $45,000 yearly expense account, a $3,000 monthly housing allowance, and a corner office on the 24th floor with majestic views of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign. According to Tokofsky, the first three months of Brewer’s tenure were the “victory” months. “There was such hope unleashed during that time.”

Brewer certainly hit the pavement, speaking to community groups in the San Fernando Valley and South and East Los Angeles and holding powwows with politicians in L.A. and Sacramento. An admirer of the ancient military-strategy book Art of War by Chinese mercenary Sun Tzu, he was determined to win over Villaraigosa.

“The mayor and I are going to transform this school district,” Brewer said after one meeting with Villaraigosa, having already gushed that the two were “joined at the hip.” The mayor gushed back, calling the retired admiral his “good friend” and giddily explaining that they finish each other’s sentences.

But Brewer’s fascination with the politics enveloping the massive district — its total annual budget is nearly $14 billion — soaked up months of time. Despite having a then-friendly Romer-era school board that would have quickly approved many of his decisions, Brewer failed to hire senior staff to help him in the crucial areas of curriculum and instruction — the real backbone for any turnaround.

“It would have been better to hire (his core staff)” when he had the backing of the board that hired him, says Lansing. “I think (Brewer) would agree with that.”

His dithering, which allowed a new, far less friendly school board to sweep into office before he could assemble his senior management team, was the first of several blunders. In October, when he finally made a big hiring decision nearly a year after taking office — promoting Romer’s successful chief curriculum instructor Ronni Ephraim to deputy superintendent of professional learning, development and leadership — he faced hostile board members and sudden battles driven by insider politics.

But vocal Brewer critic A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, was pleased with Brewer’s decision to give Ephraim responsibility over how the district trains its teachers. Ephraim, who is white, had overseen changes in classroom instruction in the grade schools that led to dramatic increases in reading test scores — including big achievement gains at impoverished black and Latino schools that many educators had insisted could not be improved due to poverty.

Yet behind the scenes, Villaraigosa’s board allies somehow believed that longtime educator Ephraim was using the wrong approach to teach English to Spanish-speaking children. Overriding Brewer’s own desire, and caving to pressure from ethnic advocacy groups, school board president Monica Garcia and her colleagues handed Brewer a publicly humiliating decision, giving Ephraim a one-year contract instead of the standard two-year deal. Longtime Villaraigosa friend and school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar voted against even the shortened contract. Ephraim would not comment on her situation.

In October, Brewer also managed to hire a chief financial officer, Megan Reilly, who finally started this month, and chief technology officer Tony Tortorice, neither of them L.A. Unified veterans. Columbia University professor Jeffrey Henig, author of several highly praised books on public education, including The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education, warns that if Brewer's staff don't know where the bodies are buried, they may not be able to “make the bureaucracy work.”

The most disconcerting hire is the one Brewer hasn’t made. The No. 2 job in this district, which educates one out of every 12 children in California, is that of the chief academic officer/deputy superintendent. That person would be Brewer’s right hand. The position, inexplicably, is still vacant.

Yet on December 4, Brewer stunned board members while unveiling the initial outlines of his long-overdue High Priority Schools reform plan, mentioning almost in passing that he was not going to hire anyone for the second-ranking job until June 2008.

“Did you say June?” asked board president Garcia in disbelief.

Brewer replied: “I’m giving myself some time.”

Garcia stared at him, then shot back: “But your schools don’t have that time.”

Her comment, a rare display of open disapproval in decades of superintendent-school-board relations in this city, sent a hush through the crowded auditorium.

Educators who want Brewer to succeed — and there are many — have urged him for months to make this crucial hire. One result of his dawdling is that he still lacks both a clear plan on curriculum and instruction and a broader strategic academic plan. “I can’t even imagine leading a major school system without senior management,” says former San Francisco superintendent Ackerman.

The deputy superintendent is also the liaison between the supe and eight local district superintendents who oversee respective subdistricts carved out of the sprawling LAUSD, which encompasses not just L.A. but 29 other cities and county areas. Without a deputy, according to district insiders, Brewer’s communication with the rest of the district is poor at minimum.

Unless something changes, Brewer and his staff may be heading for a meltdown. “He’s juggling a lot,” says board member Tamar Galatzan. “(Brewer) relies on a small group of people for a lot of work, and those people are going to get burned out.”

Ackerman moved on her strategic plan for San Francisco within six months — and plenty of union leaders and teachers moaned about it. “If you want people to follow,” says Ackerman, who very much wants Brewer to succeed, “you have to be very clear.” But vagueness from Brewer is breeding “unrest.”

In a sit-down interview with the Weekly, the superintendent did not spell out any elements of a strategic plan, instead strongly emphasizing warmed-over slogans such as “high-performance culture” borrowed from author/motivators Stephen Covey and Jim Collins, whose books Brewer reads.

“That is really the goal right now,” the superintendent said of his high-performance-culture message. “And everyone has to figure out where their role is in making that happen.”

When asked who he meant by everyone, he replied in the broadest possible terms, typifying one of his troubles: “Everybody from the principals and directors all the way down to the bus drivers.”

Says noted Harvard University professor Richard Elmore, director of the federally financed Consortium for Policy Research in Education, “If the superintendent doesn’t drive a pretty big stake in the ground, it isn’t going to happen. Teachers don’t know what to do.”

Recently, Brewer has suggested that the teacher-payroll fiasco, and the time it consumes, has hampered his efforts. But when asked about Brewer's excuse, Ackerman said unequivocally, “You have to juggle multiple balls.”

Now, a window appears to be closing, with the school board sounding increasingly unsupportive. “He asked (us) for six months, and it didn’t happen,” board president Garcia says dismissively of his strategic plan, underlining the tensions between Brewer and the board members, several of whom won office after taking millions of dollars in campaign donations from Villaraigosa’s business and labor pals.

This month, Villaraigosa conducted a controversial, money-drenched political campaign — complete with door prizes — to convince parents and teachers to let his office oversee reform at a handful of schools. Embarrassingly for Villaraigosa, just 9.9 percent of mothers and fathers bothered to participate. The small fraction who did vote agreed to let the Mayor’s Office oversee at least five schools.

Brewer, looking paralyzed even in comparison to Villaraigosa and his lackluster showing, is now covering his flank, saying his ideas for fixing 34 of the district’s worst schools will be “applied” to all classrooms. Yet some district insiders wonder if he has it backwards, suggesting he should adopt an all-encompassing plan like those in urban school districts that have shown sustained improvement — not let L. A.'s worst schools drive his agenda.

Brewer left observers scratching their heads on December 4, when he unveiled his long-awaited High Priority Schools plan. He used PowerPoint slides with pronouncements like: “The Strategic Plan is about synergy” and “It’s not a buffet, it’s a 7-course meal.”

Yet he spent less than two minutes going over what is perhaps his greatest challenge: how to improve the way kids are actually taught. (Brewer briefly suggested a more “personal touch” by teachers.) On December 18, after a rushed discussion of that key issue, the board approved his High Priority Schools plan for the 34 worst schools.

In the weeks leading up to his big December presentations, Brewer made two bizarre moves that provide at least some evidence that he may not be able to pull any of this off — prompting onlookers to wonder why he’s paying Democratic PR consultants a small fortune.

On November 6, the superintendent, dressed in his customary dark suit with gold tie, held a 6 a.m. press conference in the nearly empty lobby of LAUSD headquarters. He heralded “big change” and a “major adjustment” for the messed-up payroll system. The near-dawn hour was carefully calculated to get him on the early-morning news shows, and TV and radio stations showed up, dutifully reporting his sound bites.

Yet within hours, the small lobby was teeming with irate teachers eager to tell a different tale — of taking precious class time off work to straighten out what the district hasn’t. Radio stations abruptly dropped Brewer’s “big change” press coverage to run tape of educators vehemently contradicting his claims of a payroll fix — and making him out to be a liar.

Asked about Brewer’s rainbows-and-sunshine press conference, East L.A. teacher Ellen Montiel told the Weekly, “He’s clueless. The people who put this (payroll) program together don’t understand it. How can he ever understand it?”

Not long after that, on September 28, Brewer made a second questionable move, inadvertently revealing just how much of a political animal he is in a stinging “interoffice correspondence” he wrote to LAUSD board members, a copy of which was surreptitiously sent to UTLA four days later. In that memo, Brewer attacks California state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero — a woman with significant sway over the district’s funding — over her public hearing on the paycheck controversy. Calling the hearing a “scripted affair,” he slams Romero as “neither interested in the facts or what their responses entailed,” and rails, “In cases where it was pointed out that she had her facts wrong, the Senator briskly moved to another topic.”

Then Brewer gets to his real issue: He tells the board that the media paid Romero only “moderate” attention, provides a detailed list of press outlets that did and did not attend, and suggests some media talking points for board members. The talking points are filled with clichés such as: “I’m frustrated too. The transition did not go well and our folks who provided testimony yesterday made no excuses,” And, “Could we have handled it better? Sure. But hindsight is 20-20.”

The question of how effectively he spends his time came up yet again in September, when Brewer made two visits to Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress as an “expert” on the federal No Child Left Behind Act — yet saying nothing that had not already been noted ad infinitum by weightier educators. On his second trip to Washington, he and board members Garcia and Aguilar lobbied for changes in federal funding rules — in particular, a controversial bid to bring back “native language” testing, or tests in Spanish, another sign that Brewer is listening to those who oppose the past five years of promoting English, and English tests, for all kids.

Amid all of this political jockeying, his High Priority Schools plan — Brewer’s response to the mayor’s slams over the dropout rate — had finally been scheduled for a widely promoted unveiling at a “committee of the whole” board meeting on November 20. Educators citywide marked their calendars for the big day, as Brewer launched a very visible public-relations junket, appearing on KPCC public radio and granting other interviews.

Things went incredibly sour, however, when, just hours before his big unveiling, district staff sent out an e-mail at 5 p. m. on November 19, canceling the “committee of the whole” meeting and setting off an avalanche of gossip about the Admiral at district headquarters. According to LAUSD spokeswoman Binti Harvey, the reason was simple: Brewer, now on his seventh or eighth rewrite of the plan, wasn’t ready.

Board member Julie Korenstein believes Brewer’s now-pointless publicity tour was an example of his “wasting time.” A frustrated Korenstein, a board member for 20 years who is close to UTLA and represents the Valley, says, “I think he has the wrong advisers.”

Educators in the Valley are so squeamish about Brewer’s thus-far vague ideas that several schools flatly refused to be named in his list of 44 High Priority Schools — a vote of no confidence that eventually slashed the project to 34 schools. That represents only one-tenth of the district’s 300 or so most problematic schools.

Board member Galatzan, whose election to a seat representing the Valley was largely financed by Villaraigosa, says, “In the Valley, there are a lot of parents who feel middle schools and high schools aren’t safe and the education isn’t good.” She spoke to Brewer about it, and he said that while he was concerned with those bigger-picture problems, he was busy with his 34-schools plan. Galatzan says the two agreed to talk later about yet another plan, one more relevant to the Valley.

Unlike Brewer, superintendents Crew and Ackerman moved quickly in Miami and San Francisco to launch visible academic reforms, realizing that if they did not, the loudest voices — not necessarily the right ones — would fill the vacuum with plans of their own. Under Brewer, a power vacuum has plainly developed.

Now, sometimes-strident ethnic and economic lobbies — dominated by Latino and black advocacy groups — are demanding dollars and separate treatment.

The gaping power vacuum was apparent on October 23, when board member Marguerite LaMotte, who is black, pushed for a resolution to address academic and disciplinary problems among African-American students — the kind of separatist, color-based tendency resisted by former superintendents Ruben Zacarias, the first Latino to head the district, and Romer, both of whom saw it as the wrong direction for a district whose children speak more than 90 languages.

After LaMotte spoke, members of the self-described Committee for Educational Justice and Equality for African-American Students took turns dressing down the gathered bureaucrats. Brewer didn’t exactly stand up to them: He promised that things would change. But the crowd wasn’t placated. People sarcastically yelled, “Yeah, right!” One woman called out, with venom, “When are you going to do that? Today? Or tomorrow?”

Owen Knox, a retired LAUSD administrator who leads the justice committee — one of many race- or ethnically-oriented groups — complains, “The superintendent hasn’t put forward any plan for African-American students. I would’ve thought that out of all his plans, one of them would have considered African-American students.”

At a subsequent meeting, the board adopted LaMotte’s resolution, which orders the superintendent to devise yet another plan, and sticks a divisive race issue on Brewer’s desk. Not to be outdone, Latino groups are demanding changes specific to them — and their politicking could be more potent. In Los Angeles, 250,575 Spanish-speaking kids are “English-language learners” who lack basic English skills, which makes LAUSD arguably the largest teacher of English in the nation, if not the world. (By comparison, in New York, the nation’s biggest school district by far, just 95,000 Spanish-speaking children attend school not knowing English.)

One special-interest group, Families in Schools, wants changes in the way Latino children are dealt with. Its president, Maria Casillas, led the failed five-year effort known as the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, in which the cash-rich Annenberg Foundation poured $53 million into Los Angeles–area schools — to zero effect. Casillas, who is close to board members Garcia and Aguilar, says her group is simply seeking a better foundation and earlier support for kids learning English. She says Brewer “didn’t understand this at first, but I don’t fault him.”

In fact, the district has poured enormous sums into “structured” English immersion, English as a Second Language, and other English-learner programs since dumping the pricey, Spanish-heavy “bilingual” programs — and English learning has been climbing ever since, even among poor, illegal-immigrant children. But since July 10, when the board gave Brewer a long list of official deadlines for achieving various reforms, Garcia and Aguilar have been pressing him to make changes in the way the district approaches its English learners’ curriculum, including “culturally responsive pedagogy.”

District insiders who fear being tagged as racists warn that these efforts constitute an ethnically coded push for a separate curriculum for Spanish-speaking students. All of these diverging demands — from safer schools for middle-class students in the Valley to separate educational approaches for lower-income black and Latino children — inevitably start a clash over funding. Columbia University’s Henig says the board’s heavy focus on English learners, driven by Garcia and Aguilar, may foster resentment among blacks and others. “Not only is (English learning) not responsive to the needs of the African-American community,” the professor explains, but “it becomes a battle over priorities.”

Brewer downplays issues of race and class, insisting, despite a clear spike in ethnic lobbying before the board, that, “We’ve stabilized that problem to a large extent.” He believes “promoting common things like music and sports but also language” can help, and touts the recent hiring of four Mandarin Chinese instructors — a tiny blip among 45,000 teachers — calling it “another major accomplishment” of his first year. And, he promises, “This is just the beginning... We’re going to expand Mandarin Chinese to just about every school by 2020.”

The problem lies in what he’s doing about the roughly 10,000 L. A. Unified teenagers expected to fail next year’s California high school exit exam. Even though it is widely accepted that Brewer was somewhat of a racial hire by the previous school board — a charismatic black man who could neutralize his Latino rival Villaraigosa — Henig says that bad news like exit exam failure rates could leave him susceptible to overthrow “because he doesn’t have a local constituency. He’s an outsider.”

With all the troubles Brewer faces, some are wondering who’s advising him. While Brewer himself cites Crew, Ackerman, Chicago superintendent Arne Duncan and San Diego superintendent Carl Cohn — a widely admired black superintendent who improved the deeply troubled Long Beach schools not far from L.A. — he doesn’t seem to be listening to them.

Brewer says two longtime educators in his family — his wife, Richardene “Deanie” Brewer, and sister-in-law, Julie Williams — are his “main confidantes.” He did not cite to the Weekly anyone within the district, despite having several proven senior staff members at his disposal.

Brewer does appear to be listening to political consultants: When he decided to pay $15,000 a month to Michael Bustamante, a longtime Democratic consultant best known as the guy who advised Governor Gray Davis during the disastrous electricity crisis, it was clearly “for strategic purposes,” says Scott Schmidt, president of RSC Partners, a media-crisis communications firm.

An image consultant — which is how political operative Bustamante bills himself — is supposed to create a “narrative” over time, “almost like a political campaign” for Brewer, Schmidt explains. Bustamante’s close ties to Democrats in Sacramento are a prime reason he was hired, Schmidt surmises, noting that, “Nothing is ever a coincidence... The district needs to show to Sacramento and the city of Los Angeles that it has strong leadership.”

All this costly brainpower didn’t stop Brewer’s in-house district PR staff from making their boss look foolish a few weeks ago when they published — apparently with Brewer’s go-ahead — an awkward one-year-anniversary pamphlet featuring the superintendent’s “highlights and accomplishments” for 2007. By giving Brewer’s first 12 months the theme “Year of Listening and Learning,” however, they clearly opened him to ridicule. (Just as awkward, 2008 is deemed: “Year of Action, Leadership and Accountability.”)

“It’s a very transparent way to confront criticism of the superintendent,” Schmidt says disapprovingly. Board president Garcia also was “not pleased with the wording.”

Beyond his motivational speeches, self-advertisements and adventures in politics, critics believe Brewer has not spent nearly enough time in the classroom. “He’s not aware of what’s really going on,” says high school teacher Doug Lasken, a 24-year veteran.

Lasken, for example, says the district’s new high school and middle school English-literacy program is actually a “throwback” to the dismal 1990s, when grammar, spelling and writing skills took “a back seat.”

“It’s a safe, feel-good approach,” says Lasken, that emphasizes things “like learning how to read manuals. Its goal is to create good self-esteem.” But, he warns those promoting it, “there’s really no way around the hard part of learning how to read and write.” For that reason, he says, “The teachers are totally against it. I’ve never seen teachers this angry before.”

Lasken wonders if Brewer knows what is contained in the dumbed-down literacy program. “I don’t see his name associated with the secondary literacy program,” the teacher says. “He’s a very hands-off guy. I guess he’s into motivational theory, but he doesn’t really seem interested in the nuts and bolts of reading instruction.”

Secondary school teachers, he says, are being told to devote 60 percent of classroom time to the program and just 40 percent to state-approved English textbooks, which “are much more rigorous in their coursework.” According to Lasken, many teachers are flatly refusing to follow this directive.

Brewer also seems to have made little headway in the other key subject where L.A. high school and middle school students fail in large numbers: math. “The numbers don’t look pretty,” says UCLA School of Education professor John Rogers, who recently released UCLA’s annual Educational Opportunity Report. While 80 percent of California’s class of 2006 passed the math section of the high school exit exam, 74 percent of students in Valley schools passed, and a much worse 64 percent passed in L.A.’s citywide schools. Districtwide, only about 9 percent of the class of 2006 were enrolled in college-prep Advanced Placement math during their senior year.

Rogers says the district lacks credentialed math teachers coming out of state colleges. Instead, undertrained teachers — some of whom don’t know math well — are given the district’s confusing “pacing” system of instruction, which moves students through textbooks by skipping to and from various sections of different chapters. “It’s an incoherent plan,” blasts L.A. Unified high school math teacher Richard Wagoner. It renders carefully designed support materials meant to back up each chapter “useless — and kids don’t get a good feel for the textbooks.”

Martha Schwartz, a math consultant who regularly serves on the state’s Instructional Materials Advisory Panel for Mathematics, says, “The district keeps revising the pacing system year after year.” That’s a big mistake because “with math, you have to build from one piece to the next. That may be why they keep having to do it over.”

David Klein, co-founder of the advocacy group Mathematically Correct and a math professor at Cal State Northridge who teaches the subject to future teachers, advocates more rigorous, straightforward instruction. He says LAUSD administrators reward sexy-sounding math “innovation” — whether it works or not — far more than they reward actual “effectiveness.” He blames the inner politics of the district, where “the least knowledgeable [educators] in math are elevated.”

Brewer, according to Wagoner, has been silent on the math debate. “I don’t know what he knows,” says the teacher. “I feel bad for him. I think he took the job without realizing what it was about. He could easily say, ‘This plan isn’t working,’ and dump the whole thing.”

Harvard professor Elmore sees the potential for an academic free-for-all in which the district’s 660-plus principals, eight local superintendents and scores of other administrators push a mishmash of highly localized approaches, whether their pet ideas result in students learning the subject matter or not.

“If you don’t have the presence of the superintendent,” Elmore says of the world of public ducation, “then people consider everything as optional.”

Brewer was once again speechmaking on November 15, standing behind a podium at 8:30 a.m., facing a room full of civic and business leaders at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel. He was guest speaker for the city’s ultimate power breakfast, Town Hall Los Angeles, touting his High Priority Schools plan as well as an “innovative” breakthrough idea — to lure dropouts back to school via text messaging. He didn’t get into the specifics of how to find these disaffected kids’ phone numbers — or what kinds of mind-jarring messages would suddenly make them want to learn algebra. But he was overjoyed with the idea.

“You have to reach the children where they are!”

Brewer stood tall and square-shouldered, wearing his dark power suit with gold tie. He looked to be in total control, and he threw out such snappy-sounding phrases as “college prepared and career ready,” “world-class education,” and “deep change.” Though he insisted he was not a “headlines superintendent,” he was talking that kind of talk. Little he said was new: Students wanted to feel that people “cared” for them, parents wanted their kids to attend college, teachers wanted to improve their skills. It was the kind of rap Brewer had been dishing to audiences for months.

Then, Brewer fielded questions. One person who grabbed the roving microphone was UTLA president A.J. Duffy, whose once-tenuous leadership of the union has been given new life thanks to the district’s payroll screwups and the Brewer power vacuum. (A few weeks later, UTLA would beat the superintendent to the punch by releasing its own “reform plan” for the lowest-performing schools.)

“I’ve been in this district for about 28 years,” Duffy stated to Brewer, “and by my reckoning, I’ve gone through a reform program every third or fourth year. The teachers, parents, administrators and other stakeholders want to know, why should we believe you?”

Brewer smiled, then launched into an answer about “facilitating a structure for deep change.” As the polite political showdown played out, Joey Smith, a black 11th-grader from the gifted magnet program at Crenshaw High School in South L.A., sat with his classmates at a banquet table in back — behind all the civic and business leaders given closer access to the superintendent. Smith had never seen Brewer speak, never read about him, and really knew nothing about the retired vice admiral.

“I was excited to see what he was all about,” recalls Smith, an obvious go-getter who plans to attend an Ivy League college. But the more the superintendent talked, the more turned off the young student got.

“I got frustrated because he seemed to be going around the questions rather than answering them,” Smith says. “I think he has an idea of what he wants to do, but he doesn’t know how to do it. He may be a strong leader figure, but he doesn’t know what to do.”

And that seems to be the crux of Brewer’s growing troubles, understood after an hour’s observation by a perceptive 16-year-old. As 2007 comes to an end, the superintendent is still listening and learning. Or, as a cynic might say, plodding and yearning.

Email Patrick Range McDonalad at

Superintendent David Brewer’s Report Card: It’s the LA Times That Fails to Make the Grade by Anthony Asadullah Samad, La ProgressiveNovember 21, 2008

The Los Angeles Times has rarely offered a fair and balanced portrayal of the black community. It usually was (is) a strategic player in the witch hunt to depose black leaders, no matter who they were (are). Whether it was former Lt Governor Mervyn Dymally, the late Mayor Tom Bradley, former Police Chief Willie Williams, or now their latest target, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David Brewer, you could rarely ever expect to read anything positive about local black leadership in the Times.

Now being run from Chicago, the Times has no clue on what is going on in the black community. Truth be told, they never really did—save for a few well-respected journalists that had actually lived in the community and had to jump up and down on their editors’ desks to get anything newsworthy (and positive) in the paper.

Okay, so we understand what the Times is and what it represents. However, the paper’s rabid attacks on Superintendent Brewer took an unjustified turn when, last week, the paper called for his resignation (in a November 13th editorial). Now, I’ve called the Times “propaganda press” in the past, but this latest dig against Brewer is over the top.

First and foremost, you have to ask, who’s tugging the Times chain on this? Villaraigosa (pictured here with Brewer; he better not be–he’s running for re-election in 2009 and wouldn’t want Brewer, who’s only halfway through his contract, to represent to him what Bernie Parks’ contract non-renewal represented to Jim Hahn’s re-election prospects)? UTLA? The LAUSD Board? None of whom have brought the kind of change to the district in the last two years that Brewer has. All of the above have continued to either point out problems or be part of the problem. Their solutions have been part and parcel conjecture at Brewer’s expense.

The Times editorial has to be more about politics than it is about Brewer’s performance, which has been commendable, considering the array of problems he walked into. On its face, the timing of The Times editorial doesn’t pass the smell test. In fact, it down right stinks when you lift it up to try to find out what’s beneath it.

Meanwhile, Brewer has deflected the complaints of his detractors—some of whom didn’t want him there in the first place –like water down a duck’s back, while working the air, the ground and the sea to remedy the district’s problems. And he’s making progress. What more can he be asked to do, that he hasn’t already done, with a district as large, cumbersome and dysfunctional as LAUSD? Did I say dysfunctional??? I mean to say, deca-dysfunctional. Ten times as dysfunctional as any school district in the nation you can point to.

He spent most of his first year cleaning up the doo-doo of his predecessor while he was handcuffed to what most consider a co-superintendent. And he has still advanced the district.

Brewer’s accomplishments are no small feats. He landed in the midst of a political school board take-over and survived. He was forced to manage two crises, neither of his own making—the payroll system and the lead in the water. That was the reason for his “slow start”. If Barack Obama wants to know what its like to fight multiple wars on multiple fronts, have him call Dave.

He gave the lowest performing schools the highest priority, netting the highest academic gains in recent years (higher than the schools the Mayor oversees), created a statewide coalition of superintendents to restore much needed programs in the poorest schools, and got a critical school bond passed—the only bond in U.S. history with 69% of the vote, despite two major newspapers endorsing against it and a bad economy. The Times endorsed against and did everything in its power, editorially, to defeat the bond. The voters rejected the Times and sided with Brewer to create 50,000 to 80,000 jobs over 10 years. Brewer beat the Times so now they want to orchestrate his ouster by blaming him when there is plenty of blame to go around.

A projected financial shortfall for the district, the core of the Times apprehension, is tied to the state’s budget shortfall and has nothing to do with Brewer. When the state bleeds, local government bleeds and the district has been bleeding for awhile. The test to fiscally turn around the district will take more than the length of Brewer’s contract, but the Times is trying to fail Brewer before he can finish the test. To date he’s passed every other test in district. The test scores are up. The bond was passed. The schools are being built. Bad teachers are being replaced. Violence in the schools is down.

samad.jpgIn the black community, Brewer is passing the test with flying colors and everybody I talk to is willing to let him finish taking the test. Anybody who has half a brain knows that nobody can fix this level of dysfunction—one that was 30 years in the making—in four years, much less two. The Times need to stop their biased foolishness.

Obviously, Brewer has done a better job at adjusting to the L.A. landscape than The L.A. Times new owners have. The Times editorial was wrongheaded and misguided. With the way they continue to endorse the wrong choices in the black community (No on Measure Q, Bernard Parks for Supervisor), whatever the Times likes, we don’t (except Obama), and whatever the Times dislikes, we definitely need to take a longer look at. David Brewer included.

Riordan OKs Raises for Top Officials
By Tina Daunt, LA Times, January 30, 2001

Exercising the new powers awarded to him by charter reform, Mayor Richard Riordan has handed out handsome raises over the last month to many of his department heads, according to figures released Monday.

Police Chief Bernard C. Parks became the highest-paid official in the city when the mayor boosted his annual salary to $257,116. Even before the raise, Parks earned tens of thousands of more than the police chiefs in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Eighteen of the city’s 36 top executives have received raises this month, all of them averaging 4% to 5%. That boosted the median salary to nearly $164,000.

David Freeman, head of the Department of Water and Power, received a $16,000-a-year raise–bringing his salary to $241,227. Larry A. Keller, head of the harbor department, saw his salary increase from $206,466 to $233,063.

Riordan is expected to finish up his reviews of the city’s general mangers by the end of the month. Meanwhile, it is up to the City Council to decide whether to give an increase to Chief Legislative Analyst Ronald Deaton, who earns about $245,000.

A study released earlier this month showed that Los Angeles executives ranked among the most richly compensated public officials in the country.

Riordan and other city leaders have defended the large salaries, saying money is needed to lure top managers away from private companies.

“The mayor believes in hiring good people and holding them accountable,” said Deputy Mayor Ben Austin, Riordan’s spokesman. “If that means paying top dollar, then that’s what we’ll do.

“If you think it’s expensive to hire talented people, try hiring untalented people. It’s penny wise and pound foolish,” Austin said.

But government critics have called the salaries an outrageous waste of taxpayer money.

“The raises come on the heels of the city’s own study indicating that upper management exceeded that of other jurisdictions,” said Jon Coupal, who heads the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “It seems to me the city needs a dose of reality.”

Councilman Joel Wachs, meanwhile, said he questioned whether Parks deserved the maximum raise available under the charter at a time when the city is muddling through the biggest police scandal in its history.

“I don’t think the department’s performance merits that kind of an increase,” said Wachs, who is running for mayor. “To get a top rating is like telling someone that this is the best they can do. No one can tell me that is the best the chief and the department can do.”

Wachs said he would seek a public review of the raises; he is calling for colleagues on the City Council to review the matter in open session.

Before charter reform, executive raises were decided by a committee of city officials and ratified by the council. As of July 1, the mayor has the power to award raises up to 5%.

Other city officials have suggested that the council take steps to change the new system. Perhaps a system in which the mayor would be allowed to give bonuses to top performers instead of pay increases would be more practical, one official said.

Either way, Wachs said he wants the public to have a say.

“The public can and should play a meaningful role in evaluating the performance of our city’s general managers,” Wachs said. “Without question, people in the harbor area have strong feelings regarding the impact and performance of the harbor department and its general manager in relation to the surrounding community.

“And most certainly, people throughout Los Angeles have strong feelings regarding the quality of service and performance of the … chief of police.”

Some council members, however, said they believe the increases were justified.

“A number of the people in question have performed admirably,” said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who heads the council’s Personnel Committee. “They should be compensated accordingly.”

For example, he noted that Freeman has been effective at the city’s Department of Water and Power, which has been largely untouched by the power crisis plaguing most of the state.

Meanwhile, Freeman’s counterpart at troubled Southern California Edison makes $593,000 a year, plus bonuses.

Ridley-Thomas also said that he believes Parks’ pay increase is justified.

“You would be hard pressed to find a city employee who works harder than Bernard Parks,” Ridley-Thomas said. “No matter what his shortcomings are, you would be hard pressed to find a better chief of police.”

City’s Payroll Is Unusual for Its Top-Dollar Salaries
By Tina Daunt, LA Times, January 05, 2001 in print edition B-1

Los Angeles pays most of its top executives far more than any other major city in the United States, exceeding even such expensive areas as New York and San Francisco, according to a new internal city report.

When shared with observers inside and outside the government, the report drew starkly different reactions: City leaders responsible for the salaries defended them, saying money is needed to attract talent. Government critics responded by calling the salaries outrageous and a waste of taxpayer money.

The council’s chief legislative analyst, Ron Deaton, tops the list with a salary of $239,849. Deaton’s counterpart in New York City earns $109,540, according to the report, which is expected to be presented to the council in the coming weeks.

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks earns $228,678–tens of thousands of dollars more than the chiefs of police in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Parks also earns more than the Los Angeles County sheriff, who at a salary of $214,726 was long considered one of America’s most richly compensated public officials.

Other city officials earning more than $200,000 include the fire chief, the airport and harbor administrators, and the head of the Department of Water and Power. Some 30 city executives are making an average of $150,000 a year.

Many people credit, or blame, Mayor Richard Riordan–who was a multimillionaire lawyer and deal-maker before he ran for office–for pushing for salary increases during his eight-year tenure. Riordan also has supported lucrative buyouts to help smooth the departures of some top city officials, and he has encouraged generous salary and benefits packages in order to lure top managers away from private companies.

“As a general rule, the mayor strongly believes in recruiting top people to run the city,” said Deputy Mayor Ben Austin, Riordan’s spokesman. “In order to recruit top people, you have to pay top people.”

Another top city official agreed.

“Some of us are running agencies that are as large as any Fortune 500 company,” that official said. “I don’t think the compensation is out of line.”

Others were not so generous.

“Those salaries are off the scale and outrageous,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn. “It’s not like running a private organization. They are not selling a product. They are not subject to competition from the private sector. Since market forces don’t come into play, they’re way out of touch.”

The 18-page report was prepared at the request of the City Council by William Fujioka, who heads the city’s Office of Administrative and Research Services and whose report lists his own annual salary at $194,163. Council members asked for the survey in July to get a better idea of how Los Angeles compares to other jurisdictions. Twenty agencies were surveyed.

“Overall, individual general manager salaries in the city of Los Angeles are higher than the salaries in other public agencies, including Los Angeles County, which is the agency most comparable to the city, and San Francisco, which has a higher standard of living than the Los Angeles area,” Fujioka wrote.

Nor does Los Angeles skimp on other benefits, Fujioka found. In fact, he concluded that the city’s benefits package for its top managers is as “good or better” than in other jurisdictions.

For example, of the 20 agencies surveyed, five have severance pay policies. Generally, the policy is six months of pay for involuntary termination, Fujioka noted. City executives also receive a car allowance of $500 a month, while their East Coast counterparts are given a city car. In addition, Los Angeles also offers merit pay increases of 5% a year.

Councilman Mike Feuer said the council has generally agreed with Riordan’s approach to offer generous pay packages to city officials.

“There is a lot of money here, there is no question about it,” Feuer said of the salaries. “Obviously, many of these jobs are very difficult jobs.’

Although Riordan has tried to take into consideration salaries in the private sector, in many cases the city simply cannot compete–despite its generous packages by the standards of public service, officials said. Take, for example, David Freeman, the head of the city’s Department of Water and Power, one of the few utilities that does not plan on raising its rates for electricity.

Freeman is earning $225,233 a year. His counterpart at the far more troubled Southern California Edison makes $593,000 a year, the report states.

Officials also say that the council would have a difficult time functioning if it were not for the guidance of Deaton, a longtime city employee who is charged with analyzing and navigating complex problems. Deaton is so influential at City Hall that he is often referred to as the 16th member of the City Council.

If so, however, his salary sets him apart: The other 15 earn $133,051 a year.

Deaton also outranks his bosses in terms of seniority. According to the report, the city’s chief legislative analyst was paid $131,377 in 1989–just before Deaton took over the job. In 1997, five years after Deaton took the position, his salary was set at $185,728. He has had nearly $55,000 in salary increases in the last three years.

“I think they need a little dose of reality in Los Angeles,” said Coupal. “They need to hold the line on these salaries. There needs to be some political pressure and outrage by citizens. I suspect we are not about to see a hue and cry as long as the economy is going well. But, you can bet these overly generous salaries will come under scrutiny once the economy turns.”

At least one Los Angeles public official is not earning more than his counterparts in other governments or the private sector. Although he is entitled to an annual salary of more than $150,000, Riordan, his millions long ago secured, accepts just $1 a year.

Heads Above the Rest

Los Angeles pays more than any other major U.S. city for top management positions, according to an internal city report. Salaries for top city and county managers in major U.S. cities:

General manager L.A. Orange San positions Los Angeles County County Francisco Airports $215,941 n/a $120,016 n/a Chief legis. analyst $239,849 n/a n/a $93,641 Clerk’s office $159,753 $132,849 $104,770 $96,232 Fire dept. $212,036 $178,900 n/a n/a Police dept. $228,678 $214,726 $156,166 $179,915

General manager positions New York Chicago Philadelphia Airports n/a $133,992 $114,000 Chief legis. analyst $109,540 $91,764 n/a Clerk’s office n/a $118,650 n/a Fire dept. $150,500 $136,104 $115,644 Police dept. $150,500 $139,524 $140,000

Source: City of Los Angeles

Crooked Connections: California's Los Angeles Unified School District's Rotton Payroll Deal

L.A.’s Growing Pay Gap Looms as Political Issue - Poverty: Santa Monica considers minimum wage law and L.A. mayoral hopefuls weigh in on plight of working poor.
By Jim Newton, LA Times, September 07, 1999

Los Angeles’ prototypical poor person is no longer a scruffy panhandler on the freeway offramp, or a skid row derelict camped beneath a blue tarp. Today’s poverty icon is a working mother, toiling eight hours or more a day at a job that does not pay enough to cover the rent, clothe the baby or provide a life of even minimal comfort.

That image is presented not by the radical left or organized labor. It’s the one that stares from a new advertisement soliciting donations for the United Way, a solidly centrist charity organization that balances a commitment to giving with strong, long-standing corporate relationships.

For leaders of that organization, however, the growing sense of one city breaking into two overcame any reluctance to offend.

“We felt the working poor were being ignored,” said Todd Rosin, the United Way official behind the ad. “These people are working, but they aren’t getting ahead. They’re having to choose: ‘Do I feed my kid, or do I go to the doctor?’ That choice is unacceptable.”

As the United Way’s campaign vividly demonstrates, the stubborn persistence and changing character of poverty today confronts Los Angeles’ leadership, flush from six years of economic expansion but bedeviled by a growing income disparity that undermines the region’s health. The widening gap is spurring new and controversial remedies and generating a surprisingly frank political debate.

One startling fact: Los Angeles’ 50 richest men and women are worth roughly $60 billion and are getting richer every year, while one out of every three children in the county is growing up in poverty–defined as a family of four that makes less than $16,450 a year. That percentage has steadily increased through the 1990s.

“It is,” says Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker of the California Assembly, “something out of Dickens.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky agrees.

“You look around you, people are on cruises. They’re working four-day weeks and taking three-day weekends. They’re owning second and third homes,” he said. “And then you have a growing mass of people who are at or below or just above the poverty level, even though they’re working one or two jobs… . You have the potential for serious social upheaval.”

The dichotomy between rich and poor already is playing out across the region in challenging and dismaying ways:

* It is illustrated by the struggles of airport security workers, most of whom make minimum wage, about $12,000 a year, in return for keeping the nation’s air travelers safe.

* It dominates the early run-up to the 2001 mayor’s race, as candidates and potential candidates, such as Villaraigosa and Yaroslavsky, have identified the problems of the working poor as the campaign’s leading issue.

* It divides Santa Monica, always a cutting-edge city in issues of poverty and social justice, where council members are considering what amounts to a municipal minimum wage law, a prospect that heartens labor advocates and traumatizes business interests.

* And it deeply troubles and conflicts Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican with free-market sympathies, but also a Roman Catholic raised in a tradition that champions the rights and dignity of working people.

Riordan is a staunch supporter of business who is reluctant to endorse the so-called living wage ordinances, which he fears will drive away jobs by setting minimum wages for companies that do business with the government. That same Riordan, however, pays a living wage at his downtown restaurant, urges other corporate bosses to follow his lead and insists in speech after speech that government’s actions must be judged on how well they serve the poor.

The city’s economic recovery, for which Riordan takes considerable credit, has helped create thousands of new jobs, but has perpetuated, and in some cases exacerbated, the city’s vast disparity in wealth.

To his critics, the upshot seems to be a policy of saying lots and doing little.

Has Riordan lived up to his own maxim, that government should serve the interests of the poor?

“Absolutely not,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, a leader of the Living Wage Coalition and active union organizer. “He hasn’t ever developed a strategy that helps raise the standard of living.”

Riordan Defends Record With Poor

Riordan’s defenders say his ability to affect poverty is highly limited–issues such as welfare and public health are largely beyond a mayor’s reach.

The mayor cites a long list of achievements, some directly focused on poverty, but most addressed to the broader topic of improving the quality of life for poor people. Today’s Los Angeles is safer and cleaner than the one Riordan inherited in 1993. It has more and better parks, more libraries with longer hours. All that helps to attract new business–and with it, jobs.

“By far the best thing you can do is improve the quality of life in communities,” Riordan said last week. “All the rest follows from that.”

The only real long-term answer, Riordan and others insist, is education. Poorly educated young people end up in low-wage jobs, and employers willing to pay for a well-educated work force avoid areas with bad school systems. With a real devotion to reforming Los Angeles city schools, Riordan and others believe that poverty could be addressed here.

If Los Angeles under Riordan has struggled with the paradox of working poverty amid prosperity, the contrast is even more striking in Santa Monica. There, minimum wage workers clean up after wealthy patrons in the city’s booming hotel business. Rooms can cost $450 a night; the workers who clean them are lucky to make more than $5.75 an hour.

Such glaring disparity has fueled what may be the region’s most ambitious and controversial attempt to close the income gap. A group of activists in Santa Monica is spearheading a campaign to have that city enact the state’s first municipal minimum wage, which would start at $10.69 an hour plus benefits. That’s the equivalent of about $22,000 a year.

It would apply to any business with 50 or more employees that is situated within the so-called coastal zone, a mile-wide band along the beach.

The business community is apoplectic.

“I call this the ‘leaving wage ordinance,’ because if it passes, businesses will be leaving,” said Tom Larmore, a Santa Monica lawyer who is chairing a special Chamber of Commerce committee to study the issue. “This would have a very, very severe impact. One of the things that many businesses would certainly consider and probably do is lay off employees.”

Along Santa Monica’s waterfront, hotel operators and managers generally decline to comment on the wages they pay, beyond grumbling off the record about the hardship that such a forced salary hike would cause them. They are not the only ones who might feel the law’s sting: The zone in which proponents want to see the wage law imposed includes at least two department stores, many retailers and a number of large restaurants.

With few exceptions, starting salaries at those places fall far below Santa Monica’s proposed minimum wage.

“The goal is to impact those businesses where the income disparity is the greatest,” said Vivian Rothstein, a longtime activist who is one of the leaders of the Santa Monica effort. “These are folks who are following the rules. They’re working their butts off … and they’re living in poverty. They can’t afford to feed their families.”

As for the suggestion that businesses will leave rather than pay the required wage, Rothstein and Janis-Aparicio scoff.

“Who’s going to leave a hotel with 90% occupancy on the beach?” Janis-Aparicio asked. “If they leave, 10 companies will be waiting to move in.”

The pressure on business also is justified, proponents say, because many of the businesses paying their workers minimum wage benefit by direct or indirect government subsidies. In Santa Monica, public money has helped pay for improvements along the beach and the Promenade. The city also chips in to promote Santa Monica around the country. All that draws visitors to local hotels, restaurants and stores.

Larmore calls that misleading and wrong. The taxpayer money that has paid for Santa Monica improvements and promotions largely is generated by the tourism industry, he noted. So the city would not have it to spend were it not for hotels and other businesses.

More importantly, he said, the effect of hiking wages for those companies would be to drive down demand for workers.

That means hotels and other affected companies would pay more for their people, but they’d employ fewer of them. “It actually is going to hurt the people they’re trying to help,” he said.

Early Issue in Mayoral Race

The hardest test in the quest to confront working poverty may be in the coming race for mayor of Los Angeles, a campaign that has started early and that, in large measure, will set priorities for the city as it enters the next century.

Poverty, as any political consultant will tell you, is not good politics.

The poor do not vote. The rich do. People do not like to be scolded for their affluence. And one dirty little secret of poverty is that it’s good for some people. Los Angeles is the rare city where middle-class people routinely have maids and gardeners. The abundance of poor people willing to work for low wages is what makes that possible. A real attack on poverty thus might make life more expensive for others.

All of that argues against income disparity and the poor playing a central role in any political campaign, much less one of such national significance as the Los Angeles mayor’s race.

And yet, already there are signs that the issue will not go away.

City Atty. James Hahn, by most accounts the front-runner in the mayor’s race, frequently addresses poverty, although often indirectly. His rhetoric generally addresses the topic in ethnic rather than class terms, but touches on some of the same notions–improving health care, transportation and education.

Yaroslavsky may or may not run for the city’s top job, but he already is speaking forcefully on the issue of class divisions. The county supervisor studied history and sees a chilling comparison between the divisions in American society at the beginning of the century with those here at the end. Nothing less than democracy itself is at stake, he argues.

“It’s a matter of human dignity, of valuing the worth of a human being as a part of society,” he said. “When people feel they’re not worth anything, they do desperate things… . Democracy will not work in an environment in which tens of millions of people are economically distressed.”

Yaroslavsky, who has supported the campaign to require county contractors to pay $8.32 an hour with benefits or $9.46 without, said he hopes the efforts here continue and are emulated elsewhere.

“If we have managed to improve the situation for the poorest of the working poor in this county, then we have accomplished something,” he said.

Then there’s Villaraigosa. Unabashedly liberal and pro-labor and seemingly intent on running for mayor, this is an issue made to order for the Assembly speaker. Already, he is leaning hard on it, regularly appearing at events in poor communities, sounding off on everything from homelessness to welfare reform to, most pointedly, the working poor.

“This is the preeminent social issue and the biggest challenge that we have as a city and as a society,” he said. “It’s essential for people like me to raise this issue, to show that it’s not just important to poor people. It’s important to all of us.”

Whether Villaraigosa or any candidate can get much traction with a direct appeal to tackle poverty is an open question.

In the meantime, however, labor activists say they intend to organize workers, living-wage backers intend to push the city of Santa Monica. And the United Way hopes over the next few months to draw broad public attention to the problem, taking the issue beyond the activists to a new audience.

“We’re not on a soapbox for the living wage,” Rosin said. “What we’re doing is painting a picture of reality.”

Poverty in L.A. County by the Numbers

More than 20% of Los Angeles County residents live below the official poverty line–$16,450 a year for a family of four. In 1990, that number was roughly 15%.

Roughly 6% of households bring in more than $150,000 in annual income, a higher percentage than the state or nation.

The median rent is $654 a month–or nearly $8,000 a year. Median homeowner housing cost is $943 a month–or roughly $11,000 a year.

An estimated 236,000 people are homeless.

One out of every three children lives in poverty, up from less than one in four in 1990.

43% of all Latino children live in poverty

33% of African American children live in poverty

21% of Asian American children live in poverty

21% of Anglo children live in poverty

Roughly 12% of elderly people live below the poverty level, an increase from about 9% in 1990.

2.7 million county residents, including one out of every four children, have no health insurance.

Sources: The United Way of Greater Los Angeles and Los Angeles County