Outspoken State Chief in Georgia Still an 'Outsider' in Second Term

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After squabbles with state school board members, public relations blunders, and clashes with such well-respected groups as the PTA, it would have been understandable if Linda C. Schrenko had let her first term as Georgia's schools superintendent be her last.

But that's not the style of this former teacher and principal, a conservative Republican who rattled education leaders in the state in 1994 when she defeated the Democratic incumbent with promises to cut bureaucracy and give parents more control over their local schools.

Linda C. Schrenko

Age: 49
Title: Georgia Superintendent of schools.
Education: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from Augusta College, 1972; master's degree in counseling from Georgia Southern University, 1982; education specialist's degree in administration and supervision from Augusta State University, 1986.
Career: Teacher, 1972-1982, most of that time at South Columbia Elementary School in Columbia County, Ga.; later worked as a counselor and assistant principal and was principal of South Columbia Elementary School from 1986 to 1990. Education Consultant, 1990-94.
Personal: Husband, Frank Schrenko; daughter, Katherine.

She ran--successfully--for re-election last year not only to continue the work she had started, but also out of sheer stubbornness. She had a desire to prove to her critics that her first win wasn't just a fluke and that "a woman Republican who didn't bow down to the education establishment can make it," Ms. Schrenko, 49, said in a recent interview here.

"I'm perceived as the outsider, the one who will stand up to the system," she said, adding that the voters didn't send her to the state capital "to live in peace, love, and harmony."

And she hasn't.

Her first two years in office were marked by monthly state board meetings so contentious that then-Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, asked every member--most of whom he had chosen--to step down. That allowed the governor to appoint new members who could work more cooperatively with the elected schools chief.

Among the new members was Johnny Isakson, a Republican and former state senator. Under his leadership as chairman, the board and Ms. Schrenko rewrote the state's core curriculum and raised graduation standards. And those who attend the board meetings regularly say there was a noticeable improvement in the way business was conducted.

But now Mr. Isakson is in Congress. Mr. Miller is out of office. And the new governor, Roy Barnes, also a Democrat, is moving forward with an education reform agenda of his own, leaving many, including Ms. Schrenko herself, wondering how she fits in and whether her job is in danger.

Specifically, Gov. Barnes, who took office in January, has replaced four state board members and convened a 64-member commission that will take on four major education issues: accountability, funding, school safety and discipline, and creation of a "seamless" system from preschool through college.

There were doubts that Ms. Schrenko would even be asked to serve on the commission, which met for the first time last week. And even though she was, she has some doubts about what the group will recommend.

"It could truly be a reform commission, or it can be a front for a power grab and an attempt to take this office away from me," Ms. Schrenko said, referring to the governor's references to the "Kentucky model" of school reform. Currently, Ms. Schrenko oversees the running of the state education department.

Under the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, that state's legislature eliminated the duties of the elected superintendent and reduced the position's salary to almost nothing. The job's responsibilities were consolidated under a new commissioner of education appointed by the state school board.

'Almost Wounded'

The Georgia state board's May meeting was the last one for many of those appointed by former Gov. Miller. Back in her office after the session, Ms. Schrenko was clearly perturbed by the changes Gov. Barnes has made to the board.

"If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said everything was clipping along just fine," she said about her dealings so far with the governor. About a week earlier, the superintendent learned that Cathy Henson, the immediate past president of the state PTA, would be joining her at the board table.

It was a comment that Ms. Schrenko made about the PTA in 1997 that summed up for many her difficulties in office. The superintendent's press office had released a guest editorial that mistakenly referred to Ms. Schrenko as a "card-carrying member of the PTA." Ms. Schrenko, who is actually a member of a parent-teacher organization not affiliated with the national PTA, called the PTA a "liberal organization" and said she didn't agree with many of the national association's positions.

"People think about the PTA that they know, and they think, 'Why is she against us?' " said Kelly McCutchen, the executive director of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Mr. McCutchen supports many of Ms. Schrenko's actions and initiatives, such as the launch of the phonics-based Reading First program during her first term and her emphasis on getting more money into the classroom. But he admitted that her accomplishments have often been overshadowed by her controversial comments.

"She's almost wounded, kind of like Dan Quayle," Mr. McCutchen said in a reference to the gaffe-prone former vice president.

But any new Republican officeholder in a state where Democrats have been elected to the top state offices for more than a century would have had a tough time, he added. "Even if you were a shrewd political operative, which she doesn't claim to be, it would have been difficult," Mr. McCutchen said.

Some who have worked with her say Ms. Schrenko's problems stem at least partly from the establishment's aversion to change.

"Ms. Schrenko is the easiest person in the world to get along with as long as that's your attitude," said Rep. Isakson, who this year won the congressional seat vacated by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. "Cooperation is a two-way street."

Mending Fences

The PTA is not the only group the superintendent has eyed warily.

Shortly after her first election, Ms. Schrenko withdrew from the Council of Chief State School Officers because of the Washington group's opposition to Republican-sponsored efforts to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. She's been dubious about federal programs, such as Goals 2000, because she believes they come with too many strings attached.

Within the state, Ms. Schrenko charges, those who represent various groups of educators gave her the cold shoulder from the beginning. Teachers, she said, would ask her to visit their schools, only to withdraw the invitation later because of a directive from a principal or a local superintendent.

But Terry Jenkins, the incoming executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, described the situation a bit differently. The relationship between local superintendents and the state chief was strained, he said, because she would often bypass districts' central offices and send information about grants or programs directly to the schools.

Mr. Jenkins maintained that Ms. Schrenko put a partisan spin on matters that had not been politicized before. "Anytime anybody voiced a concern, they were from the other party," he said. "We had never experienced that."

While some local superintendents still "don't want to have anything to do with the state department," Mr. Jenkins said. He noted that one of his priorities for the association is to find common ground with Ms. Schrenko. He added that he believes today "she has a much calmer tone and tries to choose her words more carefully."

Ms. Schrenko suggests she's now more welcome in schools because many of the superintendents who originally snubbed her retired or left office when the state switched in 1996 from a mix of elected and appointed local superintendents to appointed chiefs only.

"I could easily be in 10 schools a day," said Ms. Schrenko. When she's not here in the state capital, she is either on her farm in Appling, near the east Georgia town of Augusta, or traveling around the state visiting schools, speaking at Rotary Club meetings, and even at the occasional PTA gathering.

A 'Focus on Teachers'

Embroidered pillows with pictures of basset hounds--a breed she has rescued and placed in foster homes for 10 years--are scattered on a white couch in her downtown Atlanta office. She has seven of the dogs at her home, along with an assortment of other animals. But her hectic schedule and the need for her to live in Atlanta during the week don't give her much time at home.

As superintendent, she's most proud of Reading First, which is now used by about 600 of the state's roughly 1,000 elementary schools. While the final results of an evaluation won't be released until September, Ms. Schrenko said there has been an increase in scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills since Reading First began.

She also started a 24-hour safety hot line to help prevent violence in schools. Following the May 20 shootings at Heritage High School in suburban Atlanta, the line was flooded with calls about possible copycat incidents, and other states have expressed interest in setting up similar phone lines. ("Arrests Top 350 in Threats, Bomb Scares," May 26, 1999.)

And even those who don't hold Ms. Schrenko in high regard otherwise praise her for putting more emphasis on what happens in the classroom.

"Some teachers do think she's put the focus on the teachers, and we applaud that," said Barbara Christmas, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a 46,000-member non-union teachers' group.

If her achievements are overlooked, Ms. Schrenko contends, much of the blame rests with the state's leading newspaper, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. For example, articles about the Reading First program don't mention her name, she said. And its reporters have taken her statements out of context so often, she maintains, that she now asks that all requests for information and other communications from the paper be conducted in writing. The newspaper has asked Ms. Schrenko to reconsider the policy.

"We think we've been fair in our coverage of Ms. Schrenko and the school board," said Mike King, the paper's executive metro editor.

"I think she has a hard time distinguishing between the news pages and the editorial pages," he added, referring to an editorial in the left-leaning Constitution that criticized her school safety ideas.

Her rocky relationship with the news media is an example of her naiveté, many observers say.

"She has to understand that, when you're in an elected position, what you say is going to be interpreted differently by different people," said Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association.

Wounded or not, Ms. Schrenko is not ready to quit politics.

Only "death or a constitutional amendment" would cause her to leave office before the end of her term, she said. While it might not be for superintendent--an office she retained with 49.6 percent of the vote in a three-way race last year--she's sure she'll run for something in 2002.

An Opportunity?

Much depends on what comes out of the governor's commission.

If making her position powerless is what Gov. Barnes has in mind, Ms. Schrenko is already trying to build some support within the legislature, she said. Some observers have also speculated that the governor would like to roll all of the various education boards in the state under one authority. And the people who run those other departments are all appointed.

Ron Newcomb, the governor's education aide, said there is no hidden agenda and no plans to create a commissioner's position.

"We're determined to have a positive relationship with her," he said. "It's important to the kids in this state that the governor and the superintendent work together."

Some observers see the commission as an opportunity, not just for the state to improve its schools, but for Ms. Schrenko to work as part of a team.

"I hope she will capitalize on the collective brilliance of the group," said Wendy Martin, a school board member from Lee County who is serving on the commission. "I'd like to think that, right now, all we've seen in the past doesn't really matter."

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as Outspoken State Chief in Georgia Still an 'Outsider' in Second Term
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