Donald Brann rebuilds trust at a California district
Donald Brann, state trustee of Inglewood USD, has only been on the job six months, but already teachers and administrators are seeing that things are different from what they used to be.
After the state takeover of the financially-struggling district, administrators say just having direct access and being able to communicate with him and receive quick answers to their questions is a change of pace. They had never seen the chief administrator visit their schools before.
Since September, Brann has been visiting two out of 17 schools a week. He speaks with principals, tours the schools, and listens to their staffing, facility and curriculum needs.
A Southern California native, Brann went to high school in Inglewood. He received a bachelor of science degree in business from the University of Southern California and spent a few years in retail as a manager and buyer before going to Cal State for his teaching credential.
State trustee, Inglewood USD, Inglewood, Calif.
- Schools: 17
- Students: 12,000
- Staff and faculty: 1,200 full-time
- Per child expenditure: $9,832
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 92%
- Dropout Rate: 5%
- Website: ttp://home3.iusd.net
He taught fourth grade for nearly a decade before moving into his first administrator’s position, as a state and federal project coordinator. In 1980, he accepted his first superintendent’s position, and in 1983, founded the Small School Districts Association (SSDA) for California districts of 2,500 students or less, running the association for 30 years at the same time he worked as a superintendent.
Much work to do
When he arrived in Inglewood on July 1, he spent countless hours speaking at churches, block parties, and local chamber of commerce and city hall meetings. His mission was to get the word out that administration of the district was about to change for the better.
Previously, he says, the central office was an entity unto itself, unconnected to the schools. “No jobs were aligned across the district, and there was no central office support,” Brann says.
A rating agency had given the district’s schools an average of 4 out of 10 (with 10 being the best). The number of registered students was down to 12,000 from 18,000 in the 2003-04 school year, and the district was in need of several principals and vice principals.
The district had suffered through what Brann calls “25 years of nepotism, cronyism, and just plain corruption, where students were used as pawns to generate revenue.” Also, absenteeism and workman’s comp claims and losses, mostly due to back injuries, were rampant. These challenges, he says, were damaging the day-to-day learning programs.
“Dr. Brann is a visionary administrator,” says Ofelia Lariviere, assistant superintendent of educational services for Inglewood USD. “He doesn’t just look at what’s happening in real time, he also looks at the possibilities in the future. When you have a district that has been through a state takeover, the morale both in the district and the community is one of defeat. He turns that around by offering a sense of opportunity and a positive direction for where we’re going.”
Public notification of the district’s financial troubles started in April, 2012, when the Los Angeles County of Education notified district superintendent Gary McHenry that Inglewood was in “negative certification,” meaning that the district would be unable to meet its financial obligations for the year as a result of “[poor] organizational decisionmaking, overstating average daily attendance, understating California State Teachers’ Retirement System payments, understating certificated salary expenses, and continued deficit spending.”
In September of that year, Gov. Jerry Brown approved state Senate Bill 533, providing emergency legislation to loan the district $55 million over 20 years. However, the loan came with a stiff price. The superintendent was removed, and the board was stripped of its voting privileges.
State Superintendent Tom Torlakson appointed Kent Taylor as district trustee, but he resigned two months later after he reached a deal with the teachers’ union that he didn’t have the authority to make. La Tanya Kirk-Carter, then assistant state administrator for business services, stepped into the leading role. She had a strong financial background, but some people felt she didn’t have experience for the top job, and six-and-a-half months later, Torlakson replaced her with Brann.
According to Brann, Torlakson had received several calls suggesting him for the position. Brann, 68, who was already retired, was set to move to his home in Hawaii when he got the call and decided he would rather help transform a student learning experience than be retired.
He accepted a salary of $180,000, which he says is $100,000 below market value, and got special dispensation from Gov. Brown to keep his $40,000 annual pension. Normally, a school administrator who comes out of retirement must stop receiving pension payments. However, this arrangement allowed the district to spend less because the pension is paid by the state.
Setting the future in motion
In October, Brann chartered a bus and took all the Inglewood administrators on a tour of the Wiseburn district, where Brann was superintendent for 15 years and orchestrated a successful turnaround. His secret to success there: an “interdistrict attendance permit,” which allows parents to enroll their kids in schools where they work rather than where they live.
As registrations in Wiseburn went up, so did the amount of per-child revenue the district received from the state, which Brann invested in bringing the schools into the 21st-century. By the time he retired in 2008, he had closed the achievement gap and balanced diversity. He plans to use the interdistrict permit idea in Inglewood to increase the number of students.
Inglewood’s technology is outdated and the district is behind on preparing for the Common Core. A $90 million town bond was approved in November 2012, of which $10 million is earmarked for school technology.
Working with his leadership team, Brann developed a technology master plan for improving the infrastructure, including servers and Wi-Fi, to handle the increased bandwidth needed for online testing. That will be followed by a slow rollout of computers and other devices. At press time, Brann was looking to hire a tech director.
“We have a lot of work to do, but if you have the money and you spend it smartly, you can go from worst to best in a relatively short amount of time,” he says.
Inglewood will remain under the supervision of a state trustee until the bailout loan is repaid. Brann’s current contract is for just one year, but he plans to make his case for extension by explaining to Torlakson that a turnaround takes a long-term commitment.
Lynn Russo Whylly is newsletter/copy editor.