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Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as L.A. Board Taps Romer For Top Job

L.A. Board Taps Romer For Top Job

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The Los Angeles school board chose former Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado as its new superintendent last week, placing a noneducator for the first time at the helm of the nation's second-largest school district.

The choice of the nationally prominent Democrat came less than a month after the New York City school system went outside the ranks of traditional superintendents to name a corporate executive and lawyer, Harold O. Levy, as its chancellor. With Paul G. Vallas nearing the end of his fifth year as the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, Mr. Romer's appointment means that the country's three largest districts now have such "nontraditional" leaders.

Mr. Romer, perhaps the only serious candidate who actually lobbied for the daunting Los Angeles job, earned a wide reputation as a leader on education during his three terms as governor. He succeeds Ramon C. Cortines, a former New York City chancellor who has been the interim superintendent of the 710,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District since November.

Roy Romer

"Look, it is probably the toughest assignment around, and I am attracted by that kind of job," Mr. Romer, 71, said last week. "It's just very important work. I'm at a time in my life where I want to do very important work. I don't want to be on a cruise."

He faces serious challenges in Los Angeles: poverty and urban sprawl, crowded and aging schools, rapid cultural change, a record of mismanagement, and a lack of public faith in the district's leadership.

"My guess is that he's going to find being a superintendent is more difficult than being governor by a magnitude of about 100," said Kay McClenney, the vice president of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based organization that Mr. Romer chaired in 1994-95.

Leader on Standards

Mr. Romer's casual but energetic approach to governing made him popular with many voters in Colorado.

He began his political career as a state lawmaker in 1958 and was first elected governor in 1986. He was re-elected twice, until term limits required him to leave office in 1998. Mr. Romer also served as the general chairman of the Democratic National Committee for the past three years.

He was one of a crop of high-profile governors in the 1980s and 1990s who made education a top priority and who were strong supporters of the movement to adopt statewide academic standards. He was the founding chairman of the National Education Goals Panel in 1991 and continued serving on the panel until 1998.

"Governor Romer was one of the early important leaders in the standards movement," Ms. McClenney said. "He's going to have a vast network of people to call upon for advice."

Reaction to the choice last week, both from within Los Angeles and around the country, was mixed.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who worked with Mr. Romer on education throughout most of the Clinton Administration, praised the appointment. "He has a keen understanding of what works in effective schools and effective school districts," Mr. Riley said in a statement.

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, a fellow Democrat, served alongside Mr. Romer on the goals panel. "I'm delighted that he is committed to Los Angeles' schools, and I predict a great future for them if he gets full support," Mr. Hunt said last week.

In Los Angeles, however, the choice of an outsider with no previous experience running a school district drew criticism.

Some of the harshest comments came in an editorial in The Los Angeles Times the day after Mr. Romer was hired. The city's leading newspaper called the choice "ill-advised," and complained that board members had shut the public out of the selection process. "He's a seasoned politician and public official," the editorial said. "But there's precious little to suggest that he's got the educational wisdom and the political guts" to improve the district.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Romer responded: "I have an understanding of what needs to happen in education reform that is unusual for a person who's not an educator." He added that he would surround himself with advisers who are experienced in running a school system.

"What you really want to do is increase the learning opportunities and the academic achievement for every student in this district," Mr. Romer said.

But some local educators agreed with the newspaper that Mr. Romer may not be well-prepared. "He's walking into a real mess in Los Angeles," said Marilyn Landau, a guidance counselor at Gardena High School, who said she worried about Mr. Romer's lack of experience working in schools.

"Now, all of a sudden, we're hiring a superintendent that's never taught. I have somewhat of a problem with that," said Ms. Landau, who taught for 22 years before becoming a counselor.

Others in the district said they were more willing to accept Mr. Romer's out-of-the-ordinary experience.

"There's a lot to be said for someone who wants to be here," said Debbie Leidner, an administrator who oversees a cluster of schools that serves about 30,000 students. "We need someone who believes it can be done, and who understands that L.A. Unified has to survive. ... The employees want it to work."

Some community activists, meanwhile, echoed the Times' concerns about the school board's selection process.

"You'd think they were selecting the pope. The black smoke comes out of the chimney, and you have a superintendent," said Hector Villagra, a staff lawyer for the local chapter of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights organization.

"We think it's very important that the community get to know the candidates, and that the candidates get to know the community," Mr. Villagra added. "That didn't happen here."

Unanimous Vote

Mr. Romer was not the top choice of the school board, which had hoped to hire former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros. But Mr. Cisneros turned the job down. Other finalists included John Murphy, a nationally known former superintendent who most recently headed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district, and George Munoz, a former Chicago school board president.

But after some disagreement, the seven-member board voted unanimously to hire Mr. Romer .

"The job is a real challenge. With his broad experience, vision, and commitment to education, Roy is up to that challenge," board President Genethia Hudley Hayes said in a statement.

Educators heard about the decision as they prepared for a restructuring of the district in July.

The restructuring plan—pushed by the interim superintendent, Mr. Cortines—divides the sprawling district into 11 somewhat independent subdistricts.

Another major challenge awaiting Mr. Romer is that of restoring public confidence after the widely publicized mismanagement of the Belmont Learning Center, a high school construction project that cost the school district nearly $200 million before it was abandoned early this year because of environmental hazards. It would have been the most expensive public school ever constructed in the United States.

In that and other more public functions of his role, some observers suggested, Mr. Romer's experience may serve him well.

Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the 43,000-member local union that is affiliated with both national teachers' unions, noted that Mr. Romer has a reputation for good relationships with teachers' unions, shaped by his work in twice helping Denver avoid teachers' strikes while he was governor, and for seeking union advice when making decisions about schools.

"L.A. Unified has more students than Colorado, so maybe being governor isn't such a bad qualification," Mr. Higuchi said. "It might be a good fit."

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Pages 1,12-13

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