Unlikely Alliance Targets Ga. Ed. Department

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Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and state schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko are living out a cliche.

Proof that politics makes for strange bedfellows, the pair is set to unveil legislation this week that would strip the 11-member state school board of its power to hire and fire education department employees.

Under the bill, that responsibility would fall to Ms. Schrenko, a Republican who backed the Democratic governor's opponent in the 1994 election.

The move has shocked Georgia's education community--particularly the seven members of the state school board who were appointed by Mr. Miller.

Reorganization of Ms. Schrenko's agency has been in the works for a year, said J.T. Williams, the board's chairman. "But the shifting of powers took us by surprise."

Stranger still, Gov. Miller and Ms. Schrenko recently have acted as if their relationship is as sweet as peach pie. Ms. Schrenko said in an interview last week that she and the governor talk regularly and that at their first meeting about this proposal, aides were dismissed.

"We were completely free to yell and scream at each other and stomp our feet," she said, "and we didn't. We agreed."

Gov. Miller, meanwhile, has lavished praise on the state schools chief. In his Jan. 10 State of the State Address to the legislature, he referred to Ms. Schrenko as "our hard-working and forward-thinking superintendent."

Such mutual admiration comes from two state leaders who until recently appeared to have little in common on school issues.

The governor is widely viewed in the state as a friend of education--and educators. In his five years in office, he has pushed generous teacher pay raises and built an acclaimed college-scholarship program with proceeds from the state lottery.

Meanwhile, Ms. Schrenko, a longtime teacher and education consultant who was elected in 1994 as Georgia's first GOP schools superintendent, is vilified by some in the education community as a right-wing radical with ambitions only for greater political power. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1994.)

Marriage of Convenience?

The new partnership may be a marriage of convenience, as both state leaders stand to score political and policy points with the legislation.

Ms. Schrenko says she wants the power over state education personnel so that she can hire staff members with experience negotiating and managing contracts with outside vendors. An independent audit of the education department last year concluded that the agency has too many educators when much of its job is overseeing contractors' work.

The legislation also would go a long way toward fulfilling Ms. Schrenko's campaign promise to shrink the agency. If the bill is approved, Ms. Schrenko would fire the department's 327 Atlanta-based employees on June 30 and reopen the next day with 200 workers whose hirings she approved.

For Gov. Miller, the bill dovetails with his efforts to control one of his favorite education initiatives, the state's lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program.

The education department and several other state agencies now run that program, but the legislation provides for it to be run by a new department of "school readiness" headed by a Miller appointee.

"The superintendent and the governor have a common interest: to improve education," said Glenn Newsome, Mr. Miller's education adviser. "This legislation allows them both to attain some important policy goals."

Political analysts also say that the governor's partnership with Ms. Schrenko on a budget-tightening measure is motivated by Georgia's growing number of voters moving to the GOP column.

"It looks like part of his move to the right," said Charles S. Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia in Athens. "He has bought into a chunk of the GOP agenda of less government, more privatization, and more decentralization."

Political Prognosis

With education committee chairmen in both the Senate and House grumbling about the proposal, its legislative prognosis is uncertain.

Critics of the plan echo Mr. Williams, the board chairman, who argues that the board's administrative authority over the department is key to the state's system of checks and balances.

Mr. Williams, the president of a real-estate-development business, compared the board's role to that of his company's board of directors. "It helps me make better decisions to have somebody looking over my shoulder."

Vol. 15, Issue 18

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