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.
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.
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, 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?"