It’s hard to put a finger on Marco Petruzzi. He’s Italian, with just a hint of an accent, but spent much of his childhood in Mexico. He married a Brazilian and at one point spoke with a heavy Southern drawl picked up during a year in Tennessee. His professional life is a puzzle, too. He worked for Bain & Co., the Boston management consultancy where Mitt Romney made his name, but he also carries a socialist streak dating back to his teenage years in Italy, a time of radical leftist politics. Now, as chief executive of charter schools operator Green Dot Public Schools, he likes to talk about the immorality of a public school system that fails too many students – while never forgetting his management roots and the importance of cash flow. Under Petruzzi – and despite cuts in state funding and opposition from teachers unions that despise charter schools – he has managed to expand Green Dot to 18 campuses around Los Angeles. Petruzzi spoke with the Business Journal about being called “Hitler,” going toe to toe with union leaders and why his daughter thinks he needs a ladder to do his job.

Question: Where do your kids go to school?

Answer: My son just finished his first year at a Green Dot middle school. We only have middle and high schools, so my daughter is at a local LAUSD elementary school.

Do your kids’ teachers know who you are?

Yeah, they know very well. We’re very involved parents. By and large, I believe we’re very well respected. The problem is not with individuals, ever. You get to know them, you build some trust, they realize that you’re just talking reasonable, common-sense stuff.

But teachers unions don’t like you very much, right?

The debate is dominated by the extremists. The real, rational 80 percent in the middle are actually having the interesting conversations. We’re just not loud about it. But the extremists (within the California Teachers Association) are there and they want my head. They’re sponsoring some bills that want to kill charters. They’ve called me Hitler in blogs.

Hitler? Really?

Yeah. And certainly right-wing capitalist bastard, racist, you name it. I’ve seen it all.

You say that’s just the extremists. What about the rest of the union?

I’m not saying the CTA loves me. But I’d argue we’ve come a long way toward a much more collaborative conversation. We have some established principles of engagement. One of them I imported from Bain & Co. is to presume trust. Every time you see something that I do and say to yourself, “Aha, he’s doing it to screw teachers,” question that for a second.

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