Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Former Wiseburn schools chief Don Brann will take reins of troubled Inglewood Unified

Brann’s appointment comes six months after the state Department of Education’s first attempt to install a handpicked administrator to run the embattled district ended in disaster.

Former Wiseburn schools chief Don Brann will take reins of troubled Inglewood Unified

Don Brann, who engineered the dramatic turnaround of the tiny Wiseburn School District, was appointed by the state Friday to lead the financially troubled Inglewood schools.

Brann’s appointment, which will be effective Monday, comes six months after the state Department of Education’s first attempt to install a handpicked administrator to run the embattled district ended in disaster.

Don Brann
Don Brann

Brann, 67, spent 40 years in the field of education before retiring in 2008 from the K-8 Wiseburn district in west Hawthorne, where he stemmed declining enrollment, helped push through successful bond measures to rebuild schools and led a turnaround of student test scores.

“There is hope for the Titanic with Don at the helm,” said Dennis Curtis, a longtime school board member in Wiseburn. “He is a wonderful leader. … He can work with the unions, he can work with the teachers, he can work with the administrators – he can work with anybody who will work with him.”

Neither Brann nor the office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would comment.

In September, financially insolvent Inglewood Unified became the ninth school district in the history of California to be taken over by the state. The maneuver came with a $55 million bailout loan, but also required stripping the five-member school board of its legislative powers and firing then-Superintendent Gary McHenry.

Appointed by the state to replace them all was administrator Kent Taylor, who – as is custom for districts taken over by the state – served as a one-man board and administration.

Taylor’s tenure lasted just two months. He was pressured to resign in December for brokering a deal with teachers without proper approval from Torlakson. That deal locked the district into a contract that didn’t save nearly enough money, officials say.

As for Brann, so celebrated is his legacy in Wiseburn that the tiny district this spring named an elementary school’s multipurpose room in honor of him and his wife, Sari.

By the time Brann took the reins in 1993, Wiseburn was a shell of its former self, having lost two of every three students since a heyday in the 1960s. The district had closed three of its six schools; enrollment had sunk to 1,000.

By the time he left in 2008, every school in the district had been or was slated to be rebuilt, one of the closed schools – Peter Burnett Elementary – was reopened, test scores were on the rise and enrollment was back to 2,000-plus. (Enrollment there currently sits at nearly 4,000, thanks largely to the addition of Da Vinci charter high schools.)

But Wiseburn is a far cry from Inglewood Unified.

Inglewood in a decade has lost roughly a third of its student population, which now numbers 12,000. It’s a smaller proportion than Wiseburn’s loss, but a much larger hit in terms of raw numbers, given the size of the respective districts.

Whereas the enrollment decline in Wiseburn was primarily the result of an aging population, in Inglewood the exodus owes largely to a spate of charter schools that have sprung up in the area to fulfill unmet demand for good schools. Other Inglewood students have transferred to nearby school districts – such as Wiseburn.

In any case, it’s not the size of the loss that defines Inglewood’s malaise so much as the severity of the root causes.

The district’s two traditional high schools – Inglewood and Morningside – score in the bottom 10 percent of all high schools in California. Enrollment in the elementary schools has dwindled to the point where at least a couple of the buildings are half empty; Freeman Elementary this past year was down to just 158 students – 300 fewer than a decade ago.

The finances have been in a disarray, with the district deficit-spending to the tune of $17 million a year.

Mirroring the academic decline of the schools is their physical deterioration.

Custodians in Inglewood’s schools are in such short supply that the students have been known to take a broom to their own classrooms. During the winter rains in December, a leaky rooftop at Morningside High necessitated lining the gymnasium floor with a tarp and dozens of trash cans to catch the water. (The roof was later repaired.)

Casting a shadow over it all is Inglewood’s gang culture, which has reportedly flared up this year in the Morningside Park area of town. One student this year was shot in the arm in the middle of the day – though not fatally, and not on school grounds.

On the advice of the California Highway Patrol, La Tanya Kirk-Carter, the business administrator who has been holding the top job on an interim basis, is protected by bodyguards at a cost to the district of $200,000 annually.

As for Brann, he will be the first white leader to take the helm of the district in years. Inglewood Unified’s student makeup is roughly 60 percent Latino and 40 percent black. Most of its leaders on the school board and administration have been black.

Brann took an unusual approach to reviving the Wiseburn district, which consists of three elementary schools and Dana Middle School, all located in a roughly 4-square-mile patch wedged between El Segundo and Hawthorne.

It could be said that he brought a charter-school sensibility to the traditional public school district.

While most school leaders are indifferent or ambivalent about admitting students from outside their attendance boundaries, Brann went out and actively recruited them. The reason: the state pays school districts based on enrollment.

To lure families, Brann realized it wouldn’t hurt to have brand-new schools. With the support of the Wiseburn school board that employed him, he authorized several construction bond measures that proved successful at the ballot. These efforts generated some $80 million, which was used to demolish and rebuild all four schools, which to this day are among the newest in the South Bay.

Crystel Coleman is one of the many parents who was won over. A resident of Ladera Heights, generally known as a wealthy black community located within the bounds of the Inglewood Unified School District, Coleman spoke effusively of Brann, calling him a visionary.

“He is extremely good at what he does,” she said. “The (Wiseburn) district has a motto of ‘kids first.’ He lives that out in his administrative thinking and his administrative execution.”

Coleman was part of a group of parents from Ladera Heights who in 2006 tried to escape Inglewood Unified by persuading the Culver City Unified School District to take their enclave into its attendance area. The effort failed.

Brann came along shortly after and said Wiseburn’s doors were wide open.

“It was literally a godsend,” Coleman said. “We felt very orphaned by the Culver City situation.”

For Brann, coming to Wiseburn was a homecoming. Both he and his wife, Sari, attended its K-8 schools. Brann attended Hawthorne High School with the founding members of The Beach Boys, graduating in the class of 1963 with drummer Dennis Wilson.

Prior to taking the job in Wiseburn, Brann was already a veteran in the field. He’d served as a superintendent at three other elementary school districts – Mother Lode in Placerville, Old Adobe in Petaluma and Wilsona in Lancaster. He’d served as principal of Wilsona Elementary and a classroom teacher at Center Street School in El Segundo, among other jobs.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from USC, master’s from Cal State Los Angeles and doctorate in education from USC.

After high school he attended El Camino College, which two years ago named him a distinguished alum.

Education seems to be in his blood; both of his grown daughters are educators.

This isn’t the first time Brann has come out of retirement to lead a district. In 2012, he served as interim superintendent of the San Gabriel Unified School District. He also sits on the board of directors for the Da Vinci charter high school franchise in Wiseburn.

At Inglewood Unified, teachers union President Pete Somberg said he is withholding judgment for now. “I don’t know anything about him, other than he came with glowing reviews from Wiseburn,” he said. “We have to take a wait-and-see approach at this point.”

As for Coleman – the parent from Ladera Heights – when asked whether she would now recommend that families return to Inglewood, she hesitated.

“I would say yes, but conditionally,” she said. “As awesome a man as Dr. Brann is, he also has to work with a team that has to have the same vision and tenacity that he does. … It takes more than one man. Only God can create a universe in a week.”