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SPECIAL REPORT * New L.A. schools chief Roy Romer likes revamp plan, but is still . . .

Roy Romer was the city’s most sought-after public figure last week.

Since being named Tuesday to head the Los Angeles Unified School District, the former Colorado governor has been relentlessly pursued by national and local news media. Determined to set a high standard of accessibility, he made time for them all.

That left little time for briefings with district officials on the problems of building schools, raising test scores and leading a reorganization that goes into effect July 1, the same day he assumes command. Consequently, Romer said, he doesn’t begin to have answers to the fundamental questions. He’s comfortable answering, “I don’t know,” and sticks by it no matter how hard he’s pushed.

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Stocky of build and silver-haired, Romer projects an intensity that belies his 71 years. All the same, there’s a grandfatherly touch in his demeanor.

Romer owns a John Deere dealership, and images of machines and transportation provide his most vivid form of expression.

During a one-hour interview Friday with Times reporters Louis Sahagun and Doug Smith, Romer kept a cell phone at hand and answered it several times. The caller was either his wife or one of his seven children, all among the wide circle of family, friends and associates who know the number. He always answers, he said with a shrug. You never know when it’s going to be the president.

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Question: What will be your strategy for marshaling the land and money needed to build schools for tens of thousands of new students?

Answer: It’s a mistake for me to answer that question after two days on the job. I just can’t talk about things that are very important unless I am prepared to talk about them. And I haven’t been here long enough to be prepared to talk about a strategic plan.

I know the size of the need: 85 buildings by the year 2006, 2005. I know we have some money and there is Option A and Option B, depending on what happens with the state. You may be able to go 45 of them. You may be able to go 65. But you can’t build 85.

I know there is a problem of either more year-round schooling until we get that capacity relief, or more year-round schooling even with that capacity relief.

You can think about some options. Can you rent? Can you not rent? Does the Field Act prevent you from doing this? I have not had an opportunity to do that homework. [The Field Act requires that schools meet stringent seismic standards.]

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Q: But you’re known to shoot from the hip. This week, you suggested installing televisions on school buses so the children could watch educational programs while on their way to and from class.

A: I do have a style when trying to find a better way of doing something. It stimulates others to think about it. I throw out new ideas and throw them out publicly, even at a press conference. That’s a little bit risky. But I like mid-course corrections. Put your idea out on the table and say, “What do you think about this?” There’s no loss in that. So you throw 10 ideas and nine don’t work; try one that works.

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Q: Tensions between racial factions have kept the district on edge for a long time. What are your plans to bridge differences between these different groups?

A: I have been scheduled a lot in the last 24 to 48 hours to talk to the press. I have been concerned about not being able to get on the phone and do some contacting that I obviously wanted to do. I am very focused upon not just groups, but also individuals that I think would like to hear from me and get to know me better. And I’d like to get to know them better. And I’m going to schedule that as quick as I can.

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Q: Are you comfortable with interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines’ reorganization plan?

A: I agree with the direction of it. First, the decentralization is wise. Second, the shrinking of the central headquarters and making it more of a service agency, rather than the larger organization that it was before, is wise. The emphasis on reading is correct. So I agree with all of those basic essentials.

Now, there’s a whole lot to be done in the implementation of that plan. For example, how do you create 11 sub-districts and have the appropriate relationships between the central office and the 11 districts?

Let’s give you an illustration of that. As you know, this district is in the process of figuring out how to do properly the retention of students at certain grades who are not up to grade level. Now it’s not just retention, but it’s intervention and it’s prevention. You ought to try to prevent it from happening, but if it does happen, you’ve got to intervene, and then you have to retain when somebody can’t respond to the intervention. Now you can’t have 11 different policies for one district. You have to have one policy.

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Q: Are you comfortable jumping into that implementation so abruptly?

A: I come in at a very awkward time. It’s kind of like you’ve got this ship that is about to sail out of the harbor. It’s been staffed. It’s been manned. You’re coming along to be the captain and the crew’s been chosen. Now, that’s not totally accurate because Ray Cortines and the board have said, “Hey, sit in with us on the choice of the 11,” and that I will. It is catching a train that is already in motion. You’re right. It’s a challenge. I just need to go with the flow and we’ll catch up with that train.

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Q: Do you plan to bring in many of your own people?

A: I very deliberately did not bring in a personal aide. I want everybody to have direct access to me. Rather than to have them go through “Romer’s person,” I want to see them directly.

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Q: There are many issues with the use of the Stanford 9 test to hold teachers and principals accountable. What are your thoughts on accountability?

A: This is one of the most important policy issues that faces the country: The consequences of how tests are used. I believe in accountability. The only way you can have it is with tests.

We are in an area when we need to be very thoughtful. You’ve got to be wise in the way you use tests. Should we be driven by getting the best scores we can on the state test? That’s not my agenda. Clearly that’s not my agenda.

I am told the Stanford 9 is not totally aligned with the curriculum. We need to supplement the state requirement with the tools we need to do the educational job.

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Q: What kinds of tools are those?

A: At a Saturn plant, you don’t wait until the end of the assembly line to tell what a product is going to be like.

Every three months we need to know how a youngster is doing in terms of being up to performance of grade level. If the youngster is not making it, then we need to intervene as soon as possible before the end of the year.

We need a plan for this youngster that’s going to bring him or her back up to grade level. That plan could be before school or after school, intersession, or summer school. That plan might be mentoring. That plan might be that teacher doesn’t know how to do that job, and we’ve got to help that teacher do a better job. It may be that child needs to be in a smaller class.

Principals should spend 50% of their time managing the instruction in the classrooms, spend time visiting classrooms and helping teachers.

A principal working with the teachers in that building needs our help to manage the process. Namely, do you have enough time to do what you are being asked to do? Do you have enough training? Do you have the right textbook materials? Do you need coaching?

And you really ought to write a contract with the parents saying, “Hey, this youngster isn’t doing it. We’re going to do our part. You’ve got to do your part at home.”

I don’t know to what degree this is being done here. I think it is something that ought to be done at every school.

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Q: The district has a reputation for dealing with poor performance by transferring principals or teachers to other schools. How will you handle that?

A: I have a tolerance for people who are different. For those not getting the job done, I have a very low tolerance.

The dance of the lemons, that just has to stop. That’s such a damning indictment of an institution. I will do everything within my power to see that it stops.

It’s almost a moral question. Can you leave a person in charge of a school that is not doing a good job and still sleep at night? The same with a teacher.

If there is an individual or group who have demonstrated a lack of interest in doing the job, they have to get out of here, not just transfer them someplace else.

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Q: But when there’s conflict, it isn’t always clear who’s at fault.

A: There are ways to determine whether people are doing the job adequately. This is the essential job of management. If I don’t have the ability to make a judgment about the management capacity of the person running [my tractor] agency, then I am going to go broke. There are ways to determine who the lemons are.


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