The aroma of freshly poured concrete sent two seemingly random questions tumbling through my mind:
1. Isn’t it interesting that Americans so seldom name schools after generals these days?
2. What, if anything, are we going to name after Roy Romer?
These questions came to me as I stood amid the lumber scraps and rebar at what was, at the time, still known as Central L.A. Area New High School No. 10. Romer, who took over the Los Angeles Unified School District six years ago, is leaving soon and we, the people of Greater Los Angeles, will have to decide whether to say goodbye with an eponymous campus or a kick in the seat of his sometimes-baggy suit pants.
To make that decision, Southern Californians need to sort out the story of his leadership here.
If Romer himself gets around to writing the tale of his life in Los Angeles, I suspect it will read like an epic war story.
During a visit to The Times last year, the superintendent, who consumes books like an insomniac librarian, mentioned “An Army at Dawn,” Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of World War II’s North African campaigns.
At that moment, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was just getting fired up in his desire to add running a district with a $6.8-billion budget to his “to do” list. And Romer had yet to announce that he wouldn’t seek to renew his $250,000-a-year contract.
Still, I think the three-term Colorado governor brought up that book, seemingly out of nowhere, to suggest a link between what he has endured as the head of the nation’s second-largest school district and what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower went through fighting Hitler’s and Mussolini’s forces in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
Those of you who dismiss the rough-hewn Romer as a deeply flawed hick are rolling your eyes at the comparison. I’m not so sure.
In 1939, the U.S. Army was 17th in the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. “Equipment and weaponry were pathetic,” Atkinson writes. “Soldiers trained with drainpipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes and brooms for rifles. Money was short.”
Romer arrived at L.A. Unified as the only candidate willing to step into a bureaucratic quagmire. Students were testing at numskull levels, in part because they were crammed into campuses so overcrowded that flummoxed district leaders had shoved school after school onto year-round schedules -- a “solution” that fragments the academic calendar and takes some 17 days of instruction a year from kids who are already behind.
Another thing: Romer is white. The public schools aren’t.
Even before his cowboy boots had clomped onto their first L.A. campus, Latino activists, still mourning the loss of the ineffective Ruben Zacarias, swarmed. African Americans leaped onto the dog pile. Romer came up spitting the dirt of this city’s scorched-earth ethnic landscape.
No wonder that when we met for dinner, the 77-year-old superintendent -- arriving late after flying back from a visit to his Colorado ranch -- peppered the conversation with battlefield metaphors.
Sawing at beef and sipping Shiraz, he compared field marshaling the district to running Colorado: “This is easily twice as hard.”
Unlike the sort of perfectly put-together politicians Californians fawn over, Romer has not learned such basic lessons in slick as how to control his facial musculature.
“I’ve never had as much criticism in my life as I’ve had in this job,” he said, annoyance squirming over his florid features. Then he relaxed. He shrugged. “I long ago gave up any illusions about walking out of here beloved.”
He’s probably right. Los Angeles is populated with cranky Utopians who not only want schools built but expect the Crips and 18th Street gangsters who attend them to suddenly hold hands and skip around the quad singing Stevie Wonder tunes.
“An Army at Dawn” does a fine job of reminding us that for months and years, Eisenhower, a flawed man hobbled by cutthroat politics, endured setbacks and criticism while working strategically to nudge the Allies into position for eventual victory.
For a while, anyway, Americans named high schools after him.
Romer, too, has picked his battles in a war many shrugged off as a lost cause. He’s made solid progress in raising elementary school scores by ordering every teacher to use the same course work and then testing the bejabbers out of the kids. He’s shepherded the breakup of massive campuses into those cloyingly named “small learning communities.”
Sure, he did the latter reluctantly and, yeah, students and teachers have good reason to bridle at teach-to-the-test rigidity.
C’est la guerre.
Critics also grouse that he overestimated future student populations as he pushed bond measures and brought in a bunch of former Seabee builders to bulldoze over a sleepy status quo aversion to aggressive school construction. (The Seabees, after a few weeks working with the district, reportedly changed their motto from “We build to fight” to “We fight to build.”)
Take a drive around the city, though, and you’ll find evidence everywhere to support Romer’s claim that Southern California is undergoing the most dramatic public building program since the Tennessee Valley Authority. You’ll also see a district with major problems. And a district in far better shape to solve them -- maybe even with a measure of finesse -- than it was six years ago.
The Board of Education recently voted to name High School No. 10 after union activist Miguel Contreras. Board members named a school after Johnnie Cochran. And they now call the long-troubled Belmont Learning Center the Vista Hermosa Learning Center. That’s a lame name for the school Romer saved from damnation, a school he can see from his 24th-floor office.
Why not find a good spot in the freshly poured concrete facade and pound in big brass letters reading “Roy Romer?”
The gesture would reassure anyone thinking of stepping into Romer’s job that Los Angeles expects success, not miracles, from its leaders.
That’s important to remember as the board and the city’s shadow power brokers cast about for a successor, because the war is far from over, and the students of Los Angeles need the best and bravest educational leader in the country commanding their schools.