L.A. Schools Hire Navy Man as Superintendent

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Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won a political fight for control over the Los Angeles Unified School District. But while he was out of the country, the school board hired a new school superintendent. The board hired David Brewer, a retired Navy admiral with no experience in education.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently won a big political fight to get more control over the L.A. Unified School District. But while the mayor was out of the country, last week, the school board hired a new superintendent.

David Brewer, a retired Navy vice admirable - admi - admiral, with no - he may be admirable - with no experience in education, got the job. And while Brewer has been showing off his take-charge personality, it remains to be seen whether he and the mayor will get along.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Of course, they'll get along. In fact, the mayor and the superintendent are already joined at the hip, rowing in the same boat and ready to climb mountains together.

Those are Villaraigosa's words yesterday at the press conference immediately following his first face-to-face meeting with Brewer.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): There was a melding and meeting of the minds. We're going to be teammates and we're going to be working partners.

KAHN: Admiral Brewer standing at the mayor's side didn't miss a metaphor either.

Mr. DAVID BREWER (Retired Navy Vice Admiral): We had to go mano-a-mano so that we understood each other, and let me tell you it was a mind meld.

KAHN: The men's melding is in stark contrast to the months of feuding between the mayor and the city school board. Since taking office last year, Villaraigosa has been vying for more control over the district's decision makers.

This summer, he won a significant victory when the state legislature passed a law giving him some of those sought-after powers. But as soon as Villaraigosa left the country on a trade mission, the board responded by hiring the new superintendent without the mayor's input. That gave Brewer a full week in the spotlight, alone.

Mr. BREWER: Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much.

KAHN: The retired Navy admiral crisscrossed L.A.'s diverse neighborhoods playing up his outsider resume. Brewer has never been an educator, worked in education administration, or even lived in Los Angeles. But he told the crowd at a popular Afro-centric bookstore that he has done most of his homework.

Mr. BREWER: So I know a lot about L.A. However, I do have one question -where's the best catfish in town?

(Soundbite of crowd)

KAHN: And for a group gathered outside the downtown Mexican restaurant, the native Virginian pledged to learn Spanish. More than two-thirds of students in L.A. schools are Hispanic.

Mr. BREWER: My wife has already told me, you will learn Spanish, Brewer. So I will.

Unidentified Man: Starting with the mayor's name?

Mr. BREWER: Oh yeah, Villaraigosa. Villaraigosa.

Unidentified Man: I get it.

KAHN: By week's end, Brewer had learned to stop mangling the mayor's name and stay out of the Villariagosa's school board fight. Cal State Fullerton professor Rafe Sonenshein says now Brewer has to maneuver, see the rest of L.A.'s volatile political landscape.

Professor RAFE SONENSHEIN (Cal State Fullerton, Los Angeles): And then we'll see if the superintendent judges correctly the power of the various players, especially when the players don't get along with each other. And that will go a long way to determining his success or failure.

KAHN: Those players include teachers, parents, and business leaders, to name a few. With so many competing interests, school superintendents these days have to have strong political skills.

Stanford University education professor, Michael Kirst, says that's why large urban school boards have been picking politicians, prosecutors, and military men over traditional educators. He says it also gives the districts more options.

Professor MICHAEL KIRST (Education, Stanford University): The pool of candidates is not that deep from the traditional education candidates, not that many want these jobs, and they don't think the pay is worth the aggravation and short term employment.

KAHN: And for Admiral Brewer, that aggravation could be just beginning. The school board is struggling to gain total control of the district and is challenging the mayor's new authority in the courts.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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