Farewell: With hugs and impromptu speeches, school board members salute Roy Romer, who ended his six-year tenure as superintendent of Los Angeles schools on Tuesday. (Beatrice de Gea / LAT / November 15, 2006)

Since being tapped for the job a month ago, incoming Los Angeles schools chief David L. Brewer has crisscrossed the sprawling school district for an exhausting string of meetings with teachers, parents and power brokers.

It was an energetic early effort by the inexperienced but high-stamina retired Navy vice admiral to grasp the scope and magnitude of the challenges he inherits. In coming months, Brewer will have to deal with the ongoing wrestling match for power between the school board and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, plus contract negotiations with an angry teachers union and a host of academic trouble spots.
Class sizes: A Nov. 15 article in the California section about a union grievance reported claims by officials of United Teachers Los Angeles that Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks has physical education classes with more than 100 students. Millikan's largest classes have 64 students, according to records supplied by the school. —

The preliminaries ended Tuesday as Brewer formally replaced outgoing Supt. Roy Romer and immediately had to face a grievance filed by the teachers union over class sizes.

"I am looking forward to working with the children," said Brewer, 60, in his first comments from his seat at the horseshoe dais of the boardroom. "Because that is who I work for — make no mistake about it…. Roy Romer, you have left me a great foundation. It is now my job to build skyscrapers on top of your foundation."

Making a point to say people should stop addressing him by his military rank in favor of his new title of superintendent, Brewer appeared comfortable and excited on his first day.

He smiled broadly as a student drum corps and color guard welcomed him with patriotic songs. When bantering with visiting staff from Francis Polytechnic High, he recited from memory the school's test scores, and made a Poly student smile when he recognized her from a visit he had made to the campus.

But elsewhere in the district, the rhetoric was far from celebratory, as teachers revved up for the filing of their grievance by leading a media bus tour to call attention to crowded classrooms at four schools: Carson, Roosevelt and Fremont high schools and Sepulveda Middle School.

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles insisted the event wasn't scheduled to upstage Brewer, but the issue immediately rises to the top of the agenda as part of a contentious contract negotiation.

District officials admit they are not adhering to class size levels specified in the teachers contract. But the school system is allowed to increase class size unilaterally during periods of financial hardship.

The latest increase — of about two students per class at most grade levels — took effect in the 2002-03 school year in the wake of a state budget crunch and two years after an 11.9% teacher salary increase that critics had decried as too costly.

Because L.A. Unified specifies no class-size maximums, the union had no problem assembling horror stories, including an Advanced Placement statistics class at Chatsworth High with 46 students. The picture is especially bad in physical education, which suffers from being considered a low academic priority. The union tabulated four PE classes at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks with more than 100 students each.

Roosevelt High history teacher Gillian Russom has 173 students over five periods. Her largest class, with 37 students, includes 19 with special needs — either learning disabilities or a limited ability to speak English.

"How can our society expect one individual to give each to these students the education they deserve?" Russom asked.

Teachers union President A.J. Duffy was in full confrontation mode in attacking the central office: "If they cared about kids half as much as they cared about their fiefdoms, we wouldn't have to do this. They have more money than God. It's just they way they choose to use it."

According to district data, last year's average high school English class had 27 students; math and social science classes averaged 35 students. State data indicate that class sizes in L.A. Unified are on par with those in other California school systems.

At district headquarters after the bus tour, union leaders presented documents to board member Jon Lauritzen, one of their closest allies and a candidate for reelection. The symbolic hand-over took place on the sidewalk, sparing Brewer a direct confrontation for now.

In a brief interview earlier in the day, Brewer wasted no time weighing in on the delicate contract negotiations with UTLA, indicating he thinks a 3% raise for teachers is reasonable.