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D.C. Schools Chief Takes Reins as Balance of Power Shifts

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Julius W. Becton Jr., the retired general tapped to lead the District of Columbia schools, will need all the tactical know-how he can muster to reverse the sagging fortunes of the deeply troubled school system.

On many levels, his mission is not much different from that of administrators in such cities as Chicago, Cleveland, and Newark, N.J.--to turn around a district widely perceived as failing.

But the former Army commander confronts that challenge within a context that is unlike any other, thanks in part to a shake-up last month that amounted to a federal takeover of the school system.

It was not surprising, then, that the first question that Mr. Becton fielded at a recent news conference concerned the bounds of his authority.

"It's clear to me," the general replied coolly. "But I'm not sure it's clear to everyone else."

Mr. Becton, 70, swept into power on Nov. 15 when Washington's financial-control board--created by Congress last year to oversee municipal spending and operations in the nation's capital--declared a state of emergency in the city's schools.

Relegating the elected school board to an advisory role, the control board appointed a panel of trustees to govern the system on an emergency basis until at least June 2000. Citing what it called pervasive mismanagement, the control board ousted Superintendent Franklin L. Smith and replaced him with the retired three-star general.

Mr. Becton, who has served as the director of two federal agencies that specialize in dealing with disasters, bears the title of chief executive officer under the school district's new business-inspired governance structure. He will earn $125,000 a year, with the chance of a $10,000 performance-based bonus, and will report directly to the board of trustees, in addition to serving as one of its members.

Safety Top Priority

In his first week in office, Mr. Becton wasted no time in adopting "a business approach" to the district's affairs, putting employees on notice that slackers should "seek employment elsewhere."

Drawing on expanded powers over personnel and procurement that were granted him by the control board, he moved swiftly to revamp the district's ailing food services.

And he vowed to overhaul many other aspects of district operations over the next three months, aiming to eliminate problems described in a scathing report from the control board as permeating the entire system.

At the same time, Mr. Becton sought to underscore his commitment to children--noting that each of his five grown children attended the district's schools, and that he is the grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of three.

At the top of his agenda, he said, will be combating the violence that makes young children feel they must bring weapons to school, and correcting school building hazards that further erode their safety.

But even as he was pledging to create a "world class" system, Mr. Becton sought to keep expectations in check. No one should expect test scores to jump after just one year, or long-neglected facilities to become overnight showpieces, he cautioned.

"It took a long time to get where we are," he said during a question-and-answer session with reporters. "And it will take some time to get where we're going."

Just how far the district needs to go was spelled out in a 53-page report released by the control board as it announced the shake-up.

Deeming the system's leadership "dysfunctional," the report outlines severe problems in virtually every area of the school district's operations: instruction, facilities, finances, procurement, personnel, contract management, and record-keeping.

It accuses district administrators of falling short on many of the basic functions of their jobs, from delivering supplies and textbooks to eliminating hazardous school conditions, among other failings.

It also slams the school district for having too many buildings and employees and for entrusting students to improperly certified teachers.

Administrators, the report says, couldn't even say how many employees are on the payroll or how many children attend the schools. Enrollment estimates range from 70,000 to 80,000.

Officials of the system, including Mr. Smith and members of the school board, disputed the report, and the elected school board has challenged the control board's takeover in court.

Complex Chain of Command

But as matters stand, responsibility for the school district and its finances has been reapportioned among a complex array of players. (See "The Players.")

Power is to reside primarily with the control board and its newly minted trustees. But Mr. Becton will also have to contend with the mayor, the City Council, the elected school board, and Congress--all of whom have roles of varying importance in the district's management and finances.

Until April 1995, when the control board was created, the lines of authority for the city's schools and their funding stretched directly from the superintendent to the elected board and then up to Congress. The board's budget had to go through the mayor and City Council, but they were required to pass it on to Congress untouched.

That changed with the legislation creating the control board, which also gave the mayor and council powers to adjust the school budget. They retain that authority, although the control board holds veto power over their actions. ("Council Moving To Gain More Say Over D.C. Schools." May 3, 1995.)

Still, as Byzantine as the new power structure appears, some observers predict that Mr. Becton may actually have smoother sailing than his predecessors.

Because Congress has invested the control board with so much authority, the thinking goes, a schools chief who derives his power from that panel may enjoy greater budget stability and access to information.

"It might look more complicated on paper, but it may play out more straightforwardly," said Jim Ford, the staff director of the City Council's education committee.

Whatever the land mines that may await him, Mr. Becton said he is willing to do whatever it takes to get the district on track. His greatest asset, he said, is his ability to size up and work with those around him--however complex a task that may prove.

"It doesn't take long to figure out who's doing what to whom," he said. "I think I understand people, and I think that's my strength."

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