Law of Academics: 1st-Term Trustee Jim Roache Proves Full of Surprises

Times Staff Writer

One Thursday last month, Jim Roache popped in unannounced at Pershing Junior High in San Carlos for a tour, part of his periodic efforts as a San Diego city school board member to get an unvarnished, grass-roots feel for trends and complaints.

During the school lunch break, Principal Bill Hassett took Roache, who commands the county sheriff’s substation in Lemon Grove, to chat with three math teachers eating in the no-smoking lounge. Roache immediately engaged the three in a lively discussion about the school district’s new common core curriculum, an idea he co-sponsored last year. The core, now being phased in, will require all secondary school students to take college preparatory courses in basic subject areas, including algebra.

The math teachers decried the plan, saying that some students simply cannot be taught algebra and that to require such classes will bring only further frustration to teacher and student, and could result in more dropouts.

As Roache turned to leave after 20 minutes of animated questions and answers, one teacher asked him what he did for a living.


“I’m in law enforcement,” Roache replied, realizing the teacher had no idea he had been talking to a school board member.

“Well, if ever you are with school administrators, you’ll find they’re the ones cramming this thing down our throats,” the teacher said.

“I think maybe I could plead guilty to being part of that,” Roache laughed as he left.

Impact Outstrips Recognition

The incident is illustrative of the fact that although many San Diegans--even within the 11,000-employee school district--may not recognize first-term board member Roache by face or name, they are keenly aware of his impact in changing the shape of local schools.

Roache, finishing up only his second year as a school trustee, has surprised both administrators and fellow board members with his aggressive stance on reform issues. The many board initiatives under way have helped catapult San Diego into the forefront of districts nationwide that are experimenting--at times with controversy--with new ways of teaching.

The 42-year-old Roache has belied the image he brought to the board: that of an inflexible right-wing ideologue. He is praised for his hard work, his willingness to listen and his enjoyment of debate without hidden agendas. Observers say he marks a substantial change in representation for his area in the the city’s northeastern tier. Predecessor Larry Lester was an often-inflexible conservative member who delighted in staking out extreme positions.

Last month, Roache was elected the board’s vice president as a prelude to becoming president next year.

“I think Jim is doing a good job, although he comes from a conservative point of view,” said colleague Kay Davis, the board’s senior member, who has had her share of disagreements with Roache during the past two years, in particular over core curriculum.

“He has very strong opinions, and sometimes he doesn’t know everything about an issue before forming that strong opinion, and then you have to convince him to look at a different way or conclusion.

“But what saves him is that he really is a pragmatist who realizes this is not a perfect world . . . " she said.

District Supt. Tom Payzant said Roache has surprised many people, including himself.

No Game Playing

“I guess I thought he would be more ideological and have a stereotypical conservative agenda, however people wanted to define that, based on the consensus of what people were expecting,” Payzant said.

“But I have found him very open-minded, receptive to good data and well-reasoned argument, and his candor and ability to go to the heart of issues are very refreshing. Plus he has a good sense of humor.

“He has no hidden agendas and does no game playing, and that is commendable in public policy-making,” Payzant said. “We do disagree at times, but he also has also taken risks and told his community things that they don’t necessarily want to hear. That makes him very effective over the long haul in understanding the conflict at times between representing the people of his district and the best interests of students in all of San Diego.”

Dorothy Smith, who retired last month after eight years on the board representing heavily minority areas, said Roache has the potential to be the group’s most influential member.

In May, 1987, Smith and Roache formed an alliance, considered unusual by some at the time, to push the core curriculum with colleagues and top administrators who were initially less than enthusiastic.

“Despite my own misgivings at first--I thought he was a little naive--I soon found he really cared for kids,” Smith said, citing a talk Roache gave at the dedication of DePortola Middle School in early 1987. “I didn’t know what deep feelings he had for education until I heard him speak that day about patriotism, about high standards for all children (a longtime priority for Smith) and how education will affect America’s future.

“He opened his heart that day, and I was in tears at the end.”

Knew He’d Be Stereotyped

The lean, intense sheriff’s captain said he knew he would be stereotyped when he joined the board. After all, his 1986 election opponent, Sue Braun, had labled Roache’s background as simply “jails, jails, jails” in mocking his campaign for an education office. Roache won the final vote by a scant 903 ballots.

“People said, ‘He’s a cop, he’s a non-educator, he’s a white male, and he comes from a predominantly Caucasian district.’ And in their minds, that added up to a right-wing, red-necked, kick-ass, take-names conservative,” Roache said.

“Sure, I am a conservative, but to me, that means a value system that at its base says that education is important to society, and that means my objective is to have all kids receive the best possible education no matter what color they are or where they come from.”

Both his own uneven educational background and his 18 years in law enforcement, often dealing with school-related problems, have helped bring forth not a cynical view of society, as many administrators assumed, but rather a sense that all things are possible.

Roache acknowledges that he stayed in high school--he graduated from Twentynine Palms High north of Palm Springs--only because of athletics, and he dropped out of Grossmont College before joining the Air Force in the mid-1960s.

Only after several years of supporting a wife and child on an enlisted man’s sparse salary did Roache realize he needed further education to make more of his life. He returned to community college and eventually graduated from San Diego State University.

Key Is Building Blocks

“That is why the common core concept has been so important to me,” Roache said. “A lot of kids are like I was, who don’t know where they are going, who have no immediate goals. But at some point in the future, they will develop a plan, and the key is to give them the fundamental academic building blocks so that they won’t be encumbered by poor basic educational preparation like I was when I matured.

“They’ll still have to work hard, but at least they will stand a chance of making it more quickly,” he said.

Roache also links the core concept to his years in dealing with juveniles in trouble with the law.

“Look, I’m a blue-collar type of guy, and I make no pretense to be an intellectual,” Roache said. “But when I see a kid picked up for burglary or whatever, I sometimes talk with them and I see a chance is still there, that almost no one is beyond salvation and that there is always the chance that somebody will connect with them to turn them around.”

In his position as station commander, Roache oversees all contacts between his officers and public schools in the Grossmont and Lemon Grove school districts, giving him an additional perspective on school-related issues. Grossmont Union High School District Supt. Robert Pyle consults periodically with Roache on issues from violence to drugs.

Roache concedes that other San Diego board members, such as Kay Davis, have questioned his commitment to programs for children identified as gifted or for advanced placement testing for students ticketed for blue-chip universities.

Wants Them to Have the Option

“I do care about those programs because those children are going to be our future doctors and physicists,” Roache said. “But I am firmly convinced that the great portion of our future leaders, from clergy to politicians, are going to be from the vast, amorphous group of regular education kids, and they are going to end up driving our culture.

“I want the common core so that more of these kids will have the options of being among our future leaders.”

The hard-charging style with which Roache has approached life admittedly has clashed with the nature of school board decision making.

“I am impatient, I want to see quick results, but I know that on a lot of issues, the quick fix won’t work and that it takes time on long-range, complex things such as the core,” Roache said.

“Ideally, I would have liked to have had the core curriculum implemented everywhere at once. But my philosophy is also to be pragmatic, to take a little at a time if you can’t persuade everyone of the validity of the entire program. The reality of implementation involves budgets and teachers and administrators, and I know from my own experience (he oversees 40 people with an annual budget of $1.5 million) that it must be a group effort. . . . I need to give others more time to work through things.”

Roache has staked out clear positions on two major issues expected to come before the board in 1989: a possible change to district-only elections and the idea of health clinics at schools.

Relishes the Debate

On both, he appears opposed to positions of the two new board members, Ann Armstrong and Shirley Weber, but Roache said he looks forward to honest debate and, where possible, compromise.

Already, Roache arranged for the board to meet in an informal workshop last month where members could learn about their colleagues’ philosophies candidly and firsthand, rather than relying on media reports as the previous board did in forming its first impressions of Roache.

He cites his own votes on year-round schools as a reason for keeping the present system of electing school board members, rather than opting for elections by geographic district only. (Currently, two finalists are nominated in a primary by voters in their geographic district, but compete in the entire school district in the final election.) Roache went against the wishes of many in the upscale, influential Scripps Ranch area in 1987 by supporting Payzant’s recommendation to have the area’s elementary school, Jerabek, go year-round on a four-track schedule to relieve overcrowding.

“I realize that some constituents still feel I sold them down the river,” Roache said. After more than a year of implementation, the year-round schedule is said to be going smoothly.

“But if I voted in opposition, how in good conscience could I tell some other school or some other community in San Diego to go multi-track year-round? Yet if we had district-only elections, I don’t know how I could risk making such a vote and not become the target of organized special interests and community activists, who have great power within districts, at the next election.”

Controversy Could Erupt

On the issue of health clinics, Roache was told last month by Hassett, the principal at Pershing, that clinics are needed because too many children do not have regular medical care until their illnesses become crises.

“How you do it given the controversy that could erupt, I don’t know,” Hassett said, referring to a wrenching board debate that occurred three years ago over the issue of providing birth control and abortion information. The board voted 3 to 2 against a Payzant plan for the clinics. Roache’s predecessor, Lester, led the battle against them.

However, both new members, Weber and Armstrong, favor clinics and, together with board President Susan Davis, could provide the majority needed to establish them.

“I agree that there is a legitimate need for health care services for adolescents and youth and it is not being met now,” Roache said. “I have political reservations about whether that is proper for schools, but the practical side of me says that society is paying a tremendous cost because it isn’t being done elsewhere.

“If some program can be designed for those services, I would favor it. But if you add birth control and abortion aspects, that offends me. I want some parental contact included when you do that, even though I know a lot of parents don’t talk to their children about (sex-related) matters and that some kids don’t have parents to talk to.

“But it just offends me if we don’t bring the parent or guardian into the process on the campus. . . . By not doing so, we are saying we know what is best for their kid despite any moral or religious values of the family, or that parents aren’t thinking right on the issue.

“On the one hand, we are arguing in all our reform efforts that parent support is vital for the success of school, but we don’t want them there when it comes to pregnancy or sex.”

Roache said he will work for compromise if both sides are amenable. Despite his feelings on family planning, he supports programs at several high schools that allow teen-age mothers to continue their schooling while receiving child care and birth control information.

“You can’t just throw the kids out of school,” Roache said. “This is a real, real difficult issue, and we have to avoid the extremism of both sides.”