People Interview: Learning Curves
Carrying a new contract and the lessons of his first two years, LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer faces new hurdles in building, improving schools
It's been a roller-coaster two years for Roy Romer since taking over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest with 735,000 students and a $9.2 billion budget.
When arriving in L.A. as the first non-educator to head the district, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and governor of Colorado faced a school district plagued with problems, including overcrowding and poor academic progress.
Romer's primary objective since coming to L.A. has been a massive construction program that will produce 77,000 new classroom seats by 2005. Construction has been financed in part by Proposition BB, a $2.4 billion bond measure passed by voters in 1997. A second $3.3 billion bond measure is being proposed for the November ballot to help complete the expansion.
The on-again, off-again $260 million Belmont Learning Center project has also been resurrected at the urging of Romer. The project had been abandoned due to environmental concerns. Romer's contract was recently extended until 2005.
Question: What is more challenging being governor or school superintendent?
Answer: This job is more difficult than being governor. The politics are more difficult. I was governor for 12 years. I had a legislature that was all Republican and I had to work at it, but at least I had the power. Here, the administration of the organization is more challenging. It's larger than the state of Colorado in terms of size and budget. L.A. is so full of problems you inherit. This city ought to be kicked in the rear for neglecting school buildings for 20 years. There's a fractured quality about this community's decision-making there's trouble reaching a consensus. Take Belmont (Learning Center) it took a while to put it back together.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge on your job?
A: Figuring out what to do with urban, secondary education. I will admit up front that our secondary institutions are performing poorly. Nobody in the country is doing secondary education well. Look at Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Chicago.
Q: How is the district's construction program to create more schools going?
A: We're doing 159 projects, 80 new schools, and 79 expansions. It will be all completed by 2005. We're also spending half a billion on improvement for existing buildings, which will be done by 2004. In addition, we'll have another bond issue on the ballot in November, which will help finish construction. We never planned to finish it with the first bond.
Q: State Controller Kathleen Connell released an audit saying the first bond measure was deceptive and disorganized. Though the blame was laid on your predecessors, do you think this will affect how voters view the second measure?
A: Kathleen's report is not accurate in one regard. It began by saying there was a shortfall of $1.7 billion, which was not true. There was a shortfall of $600 million, which we acknowledge, on the repair. Kathleen's audit says if you didn't finish it all on the first bond you've got a deficit, and that's not accurate. The new buildings were never intended to be finished on the first bond.
Q: What's happening with the Belmont Learning Center?
A: We've chosen a contractor and are writing specific contracts. We're finishing environmental studies so we'll know precisely what needs to be done. It's critical. We need the space and it's a blemish on the city to have a school with $150 million into it and not finished.
Q: What's happening with the Ambassador Hotel that the district bought?
A: We bought the property. We'll use the property. We know we have to have two or three schools there's a lot of kids in those areas. We also have the challenge of what to do with the existing building. We are working through all the options as to what it would cost to keep it, can it be converted, can you take relics out of it and put it in a new building, how to retain the historic nature of the site etc. Whether we save the structure yet is undecided.
Q: Will there be a commercial component?
A: It's under debate. With these proposals, it depends on how you site the school building and whether or not you could buffer that street without a commercial component. There's an awful lot of commercial land in the city but there isn't much land for schools. I've found that public entities are poor landlords. If they want to partner with a developer they might do something in combination there. My experience is that public agencies are not good entrepreneurs.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
A: You can look at this job and judge it by how well you get buildings built, how well you administer, take care of board politics, communicate with the press, deal with parents, etc. But the central issue is how do you increase learning in the classroom. The odds are so against you here. We're short 200,000 seats out of 735,000. Fifty percent of new hires are not credentialed. Twenty-five percent of the work force is not credentialed. But in spite of that, we've increased first grade reading scores last year 33 percent. When you do an ethnic breakdown, Hispanic students have moved scores from the 35th to 50th percentile, and African American students from 45th to 55th. It's unusual for a non-educator to be focused on classroom practice but that is the way I judge whether I've really made success.
Q: How can teachers become more effective?
A: When I got here, I hired 850 coaches. Coaches are essential to help teachers upgrade skills. We bring in one for every 30 teachers. Most everybody who is on a job wants to do their job. You have a pride about it and teachers have that same feeling. Most are satisfied when they feel their students really learn. Some teachers say, "I have high standards, I flunked 60 percent of my class." It's as if their role was to sort out those who had it and those who didn't. That's a 100-year tradition in this country in public schools, to sort them out. I don't believe that. I believe all people have the ability to acquire intelligence.
Q: What would you like to see being done in classrooms?
A: It used to be we manage everything in the building, but we close the classroom door and say it's the province of the teacher. But no more. We have got to have the classrooms open, in a sense. We need to open up the opportunity for a teacher and teachers to share experiences and judgment.
One of the things we do is a learning walk. We'll go into the classrooms and ask students three questions. They should be able to answer why am I doing this work, how good I should be doing it, and how can I close any gaps.
Then you watch the kind of dialogue that the teacher is having with a student.
Q: Compared with Colorado, how's life in L.A. been?
A: Culturally, it's like moving across the street from me, it's absolutely the same. I come from a small rural town and almost everyone I meet I like, or have the potential to like. I live on Muscle Beach in Venice and if you walk down the boardwalk it's a little stranger group than you'd see in eastern Colorado, but we're all ordinary human beings.
Interview: Roy Romer
Organization: Los Angeles Unified School District
Born: Holly, Colo., 1928
Education: Bachelor of science degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University, law degree from University of Colorado.
Career Turning Point: The Depression and the Dust Bowl taught the value of hard work.
Most Admired People: Abraham Lincoln and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.
Personal: Married, 7 children, 18 grandchildren.
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