When Los Angeles’ powerful teachers union struck a deal last week for a 6 percent raise, it dealt a major blow to the authority of L.A. Unified’s new superintendent, casting doubt on his ability to fulfill his promised reforms, local education leaders say. Just three months after taking the helm as superintendent, retired Navy Adm. David Brewer III finds himself forced to cut $200 million from his budget to pay for the raises – money needed to fulfill his own visions of reform that include reducing the dropout rate, getting more kids into college and curbing school violence. Brewer’s situation is similar to that of his predecessor, Roy Romer, whose plans were thwarted when he had to find money to fund an 11.5 percent average salary increase. That deal, in which some teachers got more and some got less, was struck shortly after Romer was hired in 2000. And he insisted that he – not the teachers union – is in control of the district and that he will not let the $200 million in budget cuts derail his own plans to improve student achievement. “What you really want to do is transform this district in its existing financial construct,” he said. “The district is in control of this, and not the union.” A.J. Duffy, president of the 48,000-member UTLA, said the contract agreement will give Brewer impetus to streamline the bureaucracy. He suggested that Brewer start by eliminating the eight mini-districts serving the far-flung district. “If he cuts $200 million of fat, which is bureaucratic nonsense rather than programs, then he and I are going to be very, very collaborative and we’ll be able to accomplish a lot together as partners,” Duffy said. The contract is for three years, but the district and the UTLA agreed on only the first year’s raise. The two remaining years will be negotiated after the March 6 school board election, when four of the seven seats could change hands. Timely talks The UTLA’s second- and third-year salary demands will depend on how much state funding is available, Duffy said, and whether the union believes there’s fat in the budget. Observers say the upcoming elections, Romer’s retirement last year and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s effort to seize control of the district contributed to the UTLA being able to secure such a generous first-year raise. “It’s probably the best time for the union to be in negotiations: when they have an untested, very green superintendent who doesn’t have his people, agenda and policy in place, and a school board reeling because of the attacks of last year and so concerned about getting the right mix and right majority (after the election),” said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. Sources close to the negotiations say the board – particularly President Marlene Canter – felt pressure to reach a contract before the election, before a scheduled strike-authorization vote, and before Villaraigosa could take advantage of labor strife to step in as a mediator. No pressure But Canter emphatically denied that she felt unduly pressured and said the board simply wanted to stay focused on teaching and learning. “I wanted to be able to resolve issues and move on to other issues. I think it was a good deal, it was a fair deal,” she said. “This was really a success for everyone, including the district, to resolve this effectively and efficiently.” The contract, which still must be formally approved by the board and UTLA members, bumps the average teacher salary from $60,162 to $63,772 the first year, retroactive to July. Providing full health benefits for teachers and retirees, the deal will cost taxpayers $300 million this year. The district also will phase in smaller class sizes at specific lower-performing schools, which will cost about $343 million over three years. School board member David Tokofsky also sees similarities between Brewer’s quandary and the one Romer faced. “By leaving a $200 million hole over the next two years, the superintendent has to concentrate as much on finding that revenue or cuts as he does on laying out his vision for the next five years,” Tokofsky said. “That can be horribly distracting and time-consuming and to the detriment of improved student learning.” Although Brewer had worked with unions during his 30-year naval career, he was ill-prepared for the political nuances of L.A.’s education system and the clout of UTLA, education leaders say. “He’s a well-meaning guy who came into a situation and walked into something that was possibly more complex than he had anticipated,” Duffy said. Regalado conceded that Brewer might have political difficulties initially but said the experience could serve him well in the long run. “He’s not experienced in running a school district, he’s not experienced in the kind of politics that drives urban politics and urban school districts, and he was brought into a situation with a civil war,” Regalado said. “But it’s a plus for Brewer to get something accomplished like this, even if it leaves him with some bags empty, having to find the money and having to come back to negotiate salaries once again.” Brewer’s challenge, Regalado said, will be to “carve out his own territory” in a district facing a challenge by Villaraigosa, the growing popularity of charter schools and potential political upheaval if a new school board majority is seated. “It’s going to be difficult because of the stature of the other players,” Regalado said. “I’m not sure he can’t overcome it. We don’t know enough about this person yet.” [email protected] (818) 713-3722160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “You can look at it two ways,” said charter schools executive Caprice Young, who served on the school board during Romer’s tenure. “One is that cutting $200 million out of that operating budget requires such a deep change in the way that LAUSD does business that it gives (Brewer) an opportunity to make major reforms and major changes. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to do that when you have some money and a cushion,” she said. “The other way to look at it is: He comes in and, instead of building, has to tear down.” Brewer said his staff has already identified some $100 million to be eliminated from the budget that takes effect July 1 but refused to offer specifics. He also said he plans to hire a consultant to conduct a performance audit and recommend ways to reduce bureaucracy and make the district more efficient.