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Los Angeles Times Interview : Mike Roos : Hard Years Fixing the Schoolhouse End for an Old Hand of the Statehouse

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Few people know more about the difficulties of reforming the ponderous Los Angeles Unified School District than Mike Roos. For eight years, Roos has served as president and CEO of the nonprofit Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN. As such, he’s been the point man in the struggle to transform the nation’s second-largest school system.

But on Tuesday, the 54-year-old former Democratic lawmaker will leave his $240,000-a-year post--weary, he says, and battle-scared.

Roos has enjoyed some success. More than half of the district’s 750 elementary or secondary-school campuses have embraced the LEARN model, whereby committees of “stakeholders”--teachers, administrators, other staff and parents--wield greater control over spending, hiring and educational programs. At LEARN’s behest, the district appointed an assistant superintendent for reform. And the group helped persuade Supt. Ruben Zacarias to require that every campus adopt LEARN or another reform last year.

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Yet, there’s more to be done. Though LEARN schools have posted greater gains on student achievement than other campuses, overall increases have been incremental. Roos said LEARN is getting its “second wind” and that as its reforms take hold, achievement scores will jump. Four months after Los Angeles voters elected a pro-reform school board, LEARN and four other groups trying to fix public schools announced they will start coordinating their efforts this fall to work more effectively with the board.

Roos was tapped to be LEARN’s first chief executive, in part, because of his extensive political connections. A Tennessee native whose oratorical drawl tends to serpentine sentences, Roos came to Los Angeles to attend USC, from which he received a master’s degree in public administration in 1970.

After serving as director of the Coro Foundation and as an aide to L.A. City Councilman Marvin Braude, Roos won election to the Assembly in 1977. He climbed to Assembly Majority Leader in 1980 and was picked by then-Speaker Willie Brown in 1986 to be Speaker Pro Tempore. In this role, he helped push through the state’s first assault weapons ban in 1989.

Roos has four daughters, two in their 20s from his first marriage and two under 10 years from his second; he is currently going through a divorce. Roos says he is leaving LEARN to start a public-interest consulting firm. The former state lawmaker recently sat down at his favorite haunt, the Pacific Dining Car, of power-breakfast fame, to whittle at a large sausage patty and reflect on the lessons gleaned from trying to reform L.A. Unified.

Question: How has your view of L.A. Unified changed going into LEARN eight years ago and coming out of it?

Answer: As you know, I came out of the Legislature. And when you were elected to Sacramento, particularly in the aftermath of Prop. 13, you actually felt you were helping your schools by getting as much money as you possibly could for that school district. And you never once thought about the roles, relationships and responsibilities within the district. You just naturally assumed that everybody was doing their job very, very well.

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And what I found after eight years of really working at close hand was that there were some extremely, extremely talented and committed individuals in many, many places up and down the line. But I also found that they were pretty much debilitated by the culture in which they were trying to swim. That we had allowed to develop a culture of isolation, a culture of nonaccountability of results, of not even talking about results, not talking about practices, not talking about the investment in training. Not building an esprit around public schools and the communities in which they reside.

Frankly, for the first couple of years, I was in shock at how bad the culture was. That’s why the determination was that LEARN’s mission would be to completely redo the culture under which public schools operate in this city.

Q: Can you talk about that culture? There is a notion that more money equals better education. But can public schooling be a money pit?

Ralph Frammolino is a Metro projects reporter.

A: When I came on the scene in 1991, everything was input oriented. We don’t have enough erasers. We don’t have enough blackboards. We don’t have enough computers. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough teachers. Now look at it and you see people saying: What are the test scores? What are the results? How many kids are learning? How many kids are failing? We need to invest more in training. We need to push schools to better identify their goals.

In other words, we have turned from wringing our hands over how much more we need in order to succeed to talking about success based upon what we now have and what we can do if we collaborate and work smarter toward learning goals and achievement.

Q: What does the business community want out of the schools?

A: . . . The business community wants desperately to ensure that Los Angeles continues to be the hegemonic city in America for the 21st century. And they know that’s always at risk if you have a growing underclass within the walls of your city.

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In fact the question recalls my worst nightmare, which was we [LEARN] were never going to get out of the gate. Virtually within the month that we started . . . we had the largest civil disturbance in the history of the country. Plumes of smoke. Couldn’t even get into the office. It so horrified me on a personal level, and my love of Los Angeles, but on a professional level I said this thing’s over before it even got started.

And what a misjudgment. Because what it did is it acted as a lightning rod and a motivator of how desperate things were. I think that’s manifest everywhere, but it certainly is manifest in the business community--who do want to stay here.

Q: From your perspective as someone who came from politics, of what significance was this last school board election?

A: Hugely significant, mainly because, for the first time, the employees through their unions--whether it’s the principals’ union, whether it’s the union of administrators who go out and support a candidate--for the first time, the employees were not the significant players in the election of their bosses. And that was hugely significant, because it has been truly an insider game, where one member would be elected basically by the teachers, another member basically would be elected by the management. But in short, employees were electing their bosses, and it was just an untenable relationship. So, for the first time in a long, long time, you have some real independence.

Q: What do you think about putting the mayor in charge of the school district? Detroit has. In New York, there’s a fight going on over that. It seems to be a trend.

A: I’m for it. Whether it’s [Mayor Richard] Riordan or not. I like the direct line of accountability to one elected official. And I also like the idea that the mayor is in charge of preparing the budget of the city. There’s no more vital service than the educational system.

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This split [between the city and school district] came about because of the good-government movement in California, where it was clearly felt that you wanted to keep education out of politics. That’s why you had a special district, or a separate district, to take care of the educational function.

We’re pretty grown up about how politics works, and as long as it is an open play, it fits very nicely into the package of looking at the total resource package that you have, and whether you want to fund parks first or whether you want to fund schools first or whether you want to fund your police function first. And all of those things, fascinatingly, interlink. Maybe we ought to be building some schools on some park property. There you have a wonderful opportunity now to see around-the-clock centers of our community developing.

Q: But there’s a fear among members of the minority community that if this were true, if the mayor were in charge, then the school system would fall under the control of the fat cats, the white businessmen who are so powerful in this city.

A: But it ignores the fact that every [city council] district, by and large, elects a council person who gets to tear that budget apart and who arguably have been just as strong or stronger than those who represent the more affluent communities.

The point is we should not think of our schools as little fiefdoms. We have to concentrate on excellence. And when you have a financial package with one person making a summary argument, you do have a better shot of an evenness of spread.

Right now, we have a system that absolutely guarantees that the worst schools are going to get the newest teachers, the least experienced teachers, and people who frankly have it in their head that they’re going to get out of there as soon as there’s an opening based on seniority at a better school. Now this just keeps those schools at the bottom of the rung. I think you could change the dynamic if you did have somebody who had to prepare a budget, defend that budget and put it in the context of the entire achievement of the city and what the city has to do on an annual basis.

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Q: Can you give me your take on the Belmont Learning Center? What went wrong there; what it represents; and why people respond so?

A: The lasting message about Belmont is that we no longer live in a society where you can have people who are assigned a responsibility like school development who have never been in the development business. You’re playing around with huge resources, with tremendous stakes attached to them.

One of the worst afflictions of this culture is that literally everybody starts off as a teacher. And we have to break this, if we do nothing else. We have to begin to understand that if we’re going to entrust them with the development process, and with the attendant millions and millions of dollars that go along with it, we’ve got to insist that you hire real developers to do this function.

Q: Can you contemplate the school district walking away from that building?

A: . . . If I were the school district, I would think long and hard about trying to see if I couldn’t jury-rig a way to make that the central administration building and do what they should have done years ago: Take the campus where they currently operate the district and reconvert that to a school again. I had some engineers look at it. They believed you could have a well-functioning middle school up within about a year and a half.

Q: Do you think LAUSD is too big? Should it be broken up?

A: I’m against a breakup because it’s one of those nonsensical, clarion calls that comes out of a deep frustration with the inertia of the institution. But when you play it out, here’s what you invariably see. So the San Fernando Valley gets its own school district. Who do you think they’re going to hire? They’re going to hire the same people who work for the LAUSD but happen to work out in the San Fernando Valley, who bring with them all of the same baggage of how to organize and discharge their responsibilities. Which means that what you do is you form up another command-and-control district that does nothing to allow for school communities being able to take charge and say this is a different subset of kid, there are different approaches that we have to employ to get them to the standards.

Q: But wouldn’t a breakup put control of the schools closer to the people? They would elect their own board members.

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A: Of course not. It seems like it. It gives us the false hope. The way to put the schools closer to the people is to basically give authority to the school and, the indispensable part of the equation, outcomes that it has to meet. That’s how you put it close to the people. Because then they can go directly to their school, they can have meetings arguing over how to discharge this budget, what the budget ought to look like, how much we should have for visits to museums, visits to theater, or other arts presentations, how much of it should be going into remediation, after-school programs. That’s putting everything close to the people. Then the real people that derive the direct benefit can come and argue, debate and ultimately come to a consensus with their fellow parents.

Q: Recently word was that the school board gave Superintendent Ruben Zacarias a C for job performance. What grade would you give him?

A: I would reserve an A for what I think [was] the most dramatic thing he did, and that was that he stuck to a pledge to the community that he would look at the lowest 100 performing schools. He then did something remarkable: to declare that no longer could schools sit on the sideline of reform, taking shots at all of those schools struggling with the idea of improving themselves. . . .

I would give Ruben a C in terms of what he ought to doing more of. He’s got a great personality. I think that he really ought to be challenging the community more. He ought to be a more visible presence. I think he ought to give a hell of a lot more press conferences. There’s a lot of unfolding of good news that is happening in public education in Los Angeles. I think he ought to be challenging the reform community with ideas.*

“We have a system that absolutely guarantees that the worst schools are going to get the newest teachers, the least experienced teachers.”

“So the San Fernando Valley gets its own school district. Who do you think they’re going to hire? They’re going to hire the same people who work for the LAUSD.”

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“The way to put the schools closer to the people is bascially give authority to the school and, the indispensable part of the equation, outcomes that it has to meet.”

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