The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Steps at a Time

By Frank Gruber

As I wrote at the time, my view has been that Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic candidate for president when he won the February 19 Wisconsin primary, but I am not unhappy that the campaign lasted another fourteen weeks. ("Democracy Big D," February 25, 2008)

True, although while it was going on I, like other supporters of Sen. Obama, was often mightily annoyed at Hillary Clinton's ever cheerful denial of the reality I perceived, by the end of it I admired her undying pluck. After her eloquent and powerful future-oriented concession speech Saturday, I'm willing to speculate that if she had spoken in the beginning of the campaign as she did at the end, people would be calling her, not Sen. Obama, a Mozart of politicians.

I will rewind the tape farther back and speculate even more speculatively. As her life played out, Sen. Clinton owes her political career to her marriage to Bill Clinton. But what if she had not married a politician, and had pursued her own political career from the start? My guess, based on the political skills and tenacity she showed since Wisconsin, is that she would be in Sen. Obama's shoes this weekend, having a date with her spouse after clinching the nomination for president.

* * *

Congratulations to Fran Pavley on her landslide victory in the (primary) election to replace Sheila Kuehl as our state senator. I'm happy to have been proven wrong in my prediction that the race would be close, more based on Ms. Pavley's and Lloyd Levine's geographic bases rather than any issue that would turn out to be decisive.

I'm happy because my reasonably neutral attitude about Mr. Levine soured in the last week or so of the campaign, when he sent out one nasty mailer after another. There were some positive mailers, too, of course, but even some of them offended me -- for instance, as a Jewish voter, it annoyed me that Mr. Levine thought I could be persuaded to vote for him because he'd been to Israel and took photographs there.

I have no way to prove this, and I don't know if there are any exit polls saying so, but here's hoping that Ms. Pavley's landslide was a direct result of the voters in the district protesting Mr. Levine's obnoxious campaign.

Shouldn't Mr. Levine have known that we're smarter than that?

* * *

Last week I wrote that I hoped that the School Board would resist the urge to conduct one of its patented "nationwide searches" to find a replacement for Superintendent Dianne Talarico. The last two nationwide searches found superintendents -- John Deasy and Ms. Talarico -- who lasted four and two years respectively.

So imagine how I felt when I read in The Lookout's article last week on the possibility of John Jalili becoming the interim head of the District, that the board had gone into closed session Wednesday night to hire a "national search firm" to hire a temporary replacement.

But I was relieved to learn later from School Board member Ralph Mechur that the board had no intention of making this a drawn out process, but wanted the interim position filled soon. The notice by the search firm announcing the position says that the intention is to fill it by July 1.

As for the prospects of Mr. Jalili being offered or taking the job, the obvious big pro is that he knows the community and in particular the political scene, and the con is that he presumably is no expert on running a school district.

Mr. Jalili impresses me as a quick study, however, and the District has a capable group of assistant superintendents to help with administration. So if I were on the board, and if Mr. Jalili is interested in the job, I would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. Mechur also told me that the search for Ms. Talarico's permanent replacement would not begin until after the School Board election in November, so that any newly elected board members would participate in the decision.

* * *

Speaking of the board election coming up, "LEAD," the new group parent activists have formed to push the District to manage itself better is evidence of an important change in the politics in the district. ("New Group to Work for School Disrict Reform," June 3, 2008)

The last time a group of concerned parents formed a group anything like this was almost ten years ago when some of the same people now involved in LEAD (and others including myself) formed Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS). CEPS was political, but it aimed its politics not at the School Board, but more at the City Council -- the purpose of CEPS was to tap into the City's growing revenues for the benefit of the schools.

CEPS was successful in prodding the council to give the schools more money, but in the past two years problems with the running of the District have become apparent, and the board has appeared ineffective. The focus of LEAD is the politics of the board itself.

As one who has several times written about how the School Board is not political enough -- in the sense that the board members tend to have tin ears when it comes to what the community is saying and defer much more to staff than, say, the Santa Monica City Council does -- I say politics are good.

We need candidates to run for the School Board with concrete and specific goals, which they express to voters, rather than candidates who talk in generalities about how wonderful children are and then defer to staff when it comes to policies.

I hope that LEAD provides the community with expert analysis of both the candidates and the issues. I'm not, however, impressed by LEAD's first foray into advising the board, which was a somewhat pushy letter recommending certain specific actions the board should take to get the City Council to release the $530,000 at issue over the District's special education policies.

It's not that I'm against specifics; see above. But this is a situation in major flux. Since the last City Council meeting on the subject ("City Withholds School Funding, April 23, 2008) Ms. Talarico announced the termination of Deputy Superintendent and special ed bête noire Tim Walker's employment ("Walker Resigns Post," May 2, 2008) and then her own resignation.

The LEAD proposals are not bad intrinsically, and I'm sure that LEAD's leadership believes that jumping in with four specific proposals helps to fill a vacuum. I suggest, however, that the best thing right now is a little creative ambiguity. The District is clearly taking steps -- which the council should acknowledge -- to remake the administrative culture surrounding special education in the District.

But until a new superintendent and administrative team are in place, it's going to be hard to adopt a new comprehensive plan for special education, as LEAD "recommends" that the District promise to do on an urgent basis. We don't need more unrealistic expectations.

For now, the council should release the money based on the administrative changes the District made. Then comes the School Board election. Then the new superintendent, who will presumably have been asked many questions about special education in the hiring process. Then the comprehensive plan.

In the meantime, the staff should proceed with the no-confidentiality clause policy the board has instituted, and try to repair the damage in the relationships with special education families caused by the old policies.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Meeting notice: Tomorrow night the City Council takes up in the first of at least two meetings the framework for the updates to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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