‘Hurricane Forces’ Buffet New Superintendent

September 13, 2000 5 min read
Roy Romer is up against management challenges that he calls ‘hurricane forces.’

Roy Romer shuts a doorway leading from one conference room to another, leaving behind negotiations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers’ union. Awaiting him on this side of the door is a reporter, ready to ask him why it’s such a struggle to get a good education at Manual Arts High School.

The discussion never gets that far.

Instead, Mr. Romer, who began work in June as Los Angeles’ superintendent, says there are other problems so overwhelming, so immediate, that it will be a while before he’s able to consider the everyday challenges in any given school.

“They’re going to be the ones we get to just as soon as the turbulence allows,” he says of the problems plaguing Manual Arts in South-Central Los Angeles. “We’re certainly getting to them. But 80 percent of my day is spent on the hurricane forces.”

This admission comes from a man who isn’t easily overwhelmed. He served three terms as governor of Colorado, was a prominent leader of the Democratic Party, and helped ignite what’s now called the standards movement in public education. He’ll turn 72 years old on Oct. 31, but he speaks and moves with the energy of a much younger man.

With his newest task, which requires him to lead and improve the nation’s second-largest school district, Romer may finally have met his match.

The “hurricane forces” of which he speaks were enough to scare off many applicants from even considering the top job here. They attracted Romer—one of the small but growing number of people to lead a major American district without any experience as a school administrator.

The district faces severe overcrowding, which will only get worse. Romer says another 85,000 students will enroll in Los Angeles schools within six years, and 220,000 seats would have to be found before year-round schedules could be eliminated. The district has bungled many attempts to add buildings and renovate old ones. The $200 million Belmont Learning Center, designed to provide space for thousands of high school students, stands half-complete in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, delayed by politics and worries about pollution on the site.

Add to the mix low test scores, lagging in part because of the influx of children who are only beginning to learn English. With low scores has come deep distrust of the district from the state leaders who control spending for school construction in California. The public’s trust also has eroded; some parents are campaigning for their communities to secede from the school district.

Not to mention the everyday, operational duties of running a district with 723,000 students, 65,000 employees, and a budget of $8.9 billion—nearly twice the amount of Colorado’s overall state budget for the coming year.

“To be honest about it, this is a challenge to ...” Mr. Romer stops. “To be sure you’re working on the most important things first.”

Finding space for all students is a crucial, daunting priority that Romer says will cost billions. His first day on the job, he lobbied California legislators to spend more money on school buildings. His example was the $400 million Staples Center, the new sports and entertainment arena in downtown Los Angeles, the site of August’s Democratic National Convention and only about two miles from the campus of Manual Arts.

Romer told the lawmakers that if California can support the privately financed new home for the Lakers basketball team, it can afford new homes where its children can learn.

Even with substantial help from the state, the desperate need for space simply can’t be fixed immediately, he says, even though $1.5 billion in construction projects have begun in the district, including some new schools and basic repairs of older buildings.

“There’s no way we can get there” quickly enough to end year-round schools soon, he says. “The overcrowding is very disruptive and gets in the way of good instruction. I don’t know if there’s been a steeper decline [in facilities] in America. There’s been a neglect in space.”

If Calif. can afford to finance a new home for the L.A. Laker’s, it can afford new homes where its children can learn, Romer told lawmakers.

Solving the issue of space for students in Los Angeles requires several forms of attack, Romer says: building more schools, perhaps 200 of them; leasing space in office buildings or any other place appropriate for classes; reviewing schedules to make sure schools use their space wisely; and exploring ways to teach more students at home using the Internet.

The superintendent also may push for completion of the abandoned Belmont project. “My approach to the problem is, it isn’t going to be solved by letting it sit,” he says.

Romer intends to pin many of his goals as superintendent on standardized-test scores. As the founding chairman of the National Education Goals Panel in 1991, he was one of the fathers of the movement for high academic standards. Now he’s got the chance to put his ideas—which helped lead to the current widespread systems designed to hold schools accountable for student achievement—to a very real test.

“We’re after larger gains; we’re after some major, major gains,” he insists. “I view this as a very large place for all kinds of educational innovation. We’re going to turn this into a place where a number of things are percolating.”

Romer also hopes Los Angeles’ new system of managing schools at a more local level will pay off. His immediate predecessor, former interim Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, broke Los Angeles Unified into 11 subdistricts, each governed by a local superintendent.

“We are focused on changing the culture of what’s been happening in the l.a. Unified School District,” says Renee Jackson, the superintendent of the subdistrict that includes Manual Arts, as she sits at the same table with Romer. “We’re here to provide the resources, human and monetary. Our kids, they deserve that.”

Romer says he knows all this, and says he’s getting to it.

Just not today.

“I obviously would prefer not to be doing the agenda that I’ve got,” he says, moments before stepping back into the conference room, where hurricane forces await.

—Alan Richard