Former Supt. Roy Romer was facing down an angry crowd of parents at Taft High in Woodland Hills after three students were wounded at a bus stop in a gang-related shooting.
Romer grabbed the microphone and dove in: Even gang kids deserve an education, he told the crowd. That's their best route away from crime and violence. "They're not 'those' kids. They're our kids," he said. His scolding quieted the parents. Not everyone liked what he said, but his meaning was clear. You could feel the passion: Kids came first, no matter their status.
Flash forward to March 2008. Supt. David Brewer was meeting with angry parents at Markham Middle School. Assistant Principal Steven Thomas Rooney had been charged with molesting a 13-year-old student. Rooney had been transferred to Markham after being arrested on a gun charge at his former campus, amid rumors that he was having sex with a student.
How did he wind up at Markham, parents demanded of Brewer.
Brewer apologized, took notes and nodded as parents vented. But he had no answers, displayed little outrage and said nothing after an anguished father told him, in Spanish, "You'd never let this happen if your kid went here."
Brewer promised a public explanation and then turned the meeting over to school police officers and an expert in child sexual abuse. Then he returned to district headquarters and handed the case off to his assistant superintendent.
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Ultimately, a few supervisors got their hands slapped, but no heads rolled. Everybody blamed somebody else. Meanwhile, Rooney is awaiting trial on sex charges involving four students.
At that meeting, I realized Brewer's days were probably numbered. Because instead of fighting for the children, he seemed to me to be siding with the bureaucrats.
By now, Brewer's buyout seems like a foregone conclusion. Both school board members and bureaucrats have turned on him.
He was hired into a bad situation during a district takeover attempt by the mayor. And he never did much to make it better. Now even his strongest supporters are backpedaling.
Still, it's the school board that looks bad in its clumsy efforts to dump him after a Times editorial called for Brewer's ouster. Board President Monica Garcia tried so hard to orchestrate his removal this week that she roused a board member with pneumonia from his sick bed and chased the board's only black member through Union Station in an unsuccessful effort to get all seven members to meet.
Then she started calling local business and civic leaders to tell them that the "role of the superintendent" would soon be taken up behind closed doors. But when pressed to explain, she was about as effective as Brewer when he went to Markham.
City Councilman Bernard Parks told The Times that he asked Garcia why the board wanted to get rid of Brewer. Her answer: "It's an exempt position, so we don't have to have cause."
Which makes me wonder whether the district's biggest problem is a superintendent who is moving too slowly, or a school board that doesn't know where he's supposed to be going.
Brewer's supporters say he was blindsided by the sudden move to buy out his contract. If he's worried, he's trying hard not to let it show.
In an upbeat e-mail he sent this week to his allies -- primarily black business and civic leaders -- he called himself "unflappable and undeterred . . . a warrior who is focused on the mission -- helping our children."
I understand that his job is on the line and he's trying to mobilize an influential black constituency. On his list of accomplishments, he includes his partnership with 100 Black Men and his efforts to reform "two predominantly African American high schools," Westchester and Dorsey.
I've spent about 20 years writing about LAUSD. I've seen the district's demographics shift and watched reforms get bogged down in racial politicking. And while I'm grateful for Brewer's attention to black students -- who languish at the bottom of academic performance charts -- his memo makes me squirm.
The blatant appeal to race-based loyalty bothers me. I knew what Romer meant when he talked about "our" children because he defended troubled students, built schools in neglected neighborhoods, made sure every child had the same shot at learning to read. It didn't matter that he was a white man with no school district history.
I wish I could feel the same about the current superintendent. I'm hoping that what happens next will let me know what our children mean to Brewer. And to the school board that hired him.