Why he wants 'one of the toughest jobs in America'

Former Gov. Roy Romer will put ideas on reform into practice as L.A.'sschools chief.

He has 18 grandchildren. He grew up in a town of 800 people and tried his hand at farming before becoming a lawyer, and then a politician who wound up as a three-term governor of the state of Colorado.

Now, at an age when many men are happily into retirement, Roy Romer has decided to add one more job to his rsum - superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school system in the nation, and easily one of the most troubled.

"It was a matter of conscience," Mr. Romer told reporters last week after his appointment was announced.

As an ardent advocate of school reform during his tenure as governor, Romer said he had a choice between tackling the issue from a think-tank policy perspective, or from the hands-on, daily demands of the superintendent's seat. "It was time to walk my talk," he said.

In taking over the post early next month, Romer becomes the latest in a growing number of school superintendents who are being plucked from outside the ranks of educators.

Like Harold Levy in New York, a corporate lawyer recently appointed to run the city's school system, or Alan Bersin in San Diego, a former United States attorney, Romer brings to the immense task ahead of him a set of skills learned outside the traditional world of education.

"One of Romer's possible advantages is his political background," says Frederick Hess, an assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and author of "Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform."

"What you've got to do to get a school system pointed forward is to communicate clear expectations ... and then build up accountability systems and incentive systems to stay the course," says Mr. Hess. "And politicians have a lot more experience managing these kinds of problems than educators do."

Challenges ahead

Romer will need every skill he's learned during his forty-some years as a politician in tackling the challenges facing the Los Angeles school system and its 711,000 students, 70 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Schools are seriously overcrowded, and the building of new facilities has been slow, students' test scores are among the worst in the state, and the district has been under pressure from dissatisfied activists who want to break it apart into smaller systems.

In fact, a massive reorganization plan to create mini-districts - aimed at holding off the breakup movement - will take effect the same week Romer officially starts his job.

Racial tensions

In addition, he will have to reach out to the city's Latino community, which was angered over the ouster last year of former superintendent Ruben Zacarias.

"It's one of the toughest jobs in America," says Michael Genovese, a professor of political science and director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University. "This is not a short-term, quick-fix job.

It's going to take years and years. I think we can only expect him to begin the job."

Romer says the greatest strength he brings to the job is knowing "I don't have all the answers."

Listening hard

All through his political career, Romer says, he's been guided by knowing that "When you understand you don't come to the table with all the truth, you listen very hard to people who have other pieces of the truth.... I've been able to get the job done by bringing people together."

Those who have known and worked with Romer in Colorado agree with the former governor's assessment of his skills.

"He brought to whatever task he was working on a desire to know an awful lot about what he was involved with," says Dean Damon, a former superintendent of schools in Boulder, who worked with Romer in several school-policy situations. "He brought a high energy level to his work ... in creating what I would call a concentric circle of people who could help him understand a situation, and help him think about how to address it.

"If you gave him good information," he adds, "he would always try to incorporate it, and he was willing to keep rethinking issues as he got information that deepened his own understanding."

A hands-on approach

Floyd Ceruli, a Democratic consultant and school reform activist in Denver, says Romer's approach as governor was always hands-on.

When a teacher's strike was threatened at Denver public schools in 1990, Romer stepped in and personally took over six months of negotiations between the teachers and the school district, carefully crafting a contract that was acceptable to both sides.

"That's the kind of mediation style he has," says Mr. Ceruli. "I think he'll make a tremendous run at [his new job]. If the power structure in L.A. - the education establishment, the business community, and the political community - wants him to succeed and is willing to make some sacrifices, he may have a successful tenure."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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