Top of the Class 

The inside story of how Roy Romer got the job

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000

The setting was the Athenian Room at downtown‘s grand Biltmore Hotel. It was time for the final question at the official introductory news conference of L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer. The reporter directed Romer’s gaze to the thin, quiet, impeccably dressed man near Romer‘s side.

”Why was he here?“ she asked rather bluntly, ”and how is he involved with you?“

The ”he“ in question was 67-year-old businessman Eli Broad, and on its face, the query made sense. Why was Broad in the phalanx of civic leaders who stood side by side with Romer as a show of support? With the exception of a favored clergyman, all the others were elected officials.

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But given Broad’s role in Romer‘s elevation, a better question might have been: Why were the bit players cluttering Broad’s space?

Make no mistake. Broad was a kingmaker on this round. Which is not to say that he was part of a grand conspiracy, or that his stake in this game will make the billionaire any richer. In fact, Broad‘s passion for public education is destined to leave him about $100 million thinner in the short term. That’s the amount Broad has pledged to his fledgling education foundation.

And to be sure, it was the school board, not Broad, that finally settled on Romer, after two weeks of deliberations that somehow were rushed and protracted at the same time. Romer‘s selection was much like other events in the one-year life of this ”reform“ school board. The process was messy and open to reasonable challenge, but also led to a result with an upside.

Broad, for his part, made the mission of finding a leader for L.A. Unified a personal one, and before he was through, he bent some rules and raised suspicions, but also made a decisive, defensible difference. It was Broad who suggested that Romer consider the job in the first place, and Broad who called the school district’s professional search firm to urge that Romer be recruited. It also was Broad who functioned as an ex officio emissary to the school board‘s first choice, Henry Cisneros.

Broad’s involvement puts an exclamation point on his role in reviving the fortunes of the nation‘s second largest school system, not to mention the efforts of his good friend and ally, Mayor Richard Riordan, who also stood near Romer.

At the start, Broad barely got in on the superintendent search process; to be precise, he failed to make the cut for the school-board-appointed, nine-person screening committee. But Broad’s omission bothered three of the seven board members.

In one respect, Broad had virtually purchased a place at the table, after kicking in a cool $250,000 toward the campaign to elect Riordan‘s hand-picked ”reform“ board. Broad also represented, at least symbolically, the business community, which district leaders want to re-involve in school affairs. After building a multibillion-dollar business empire on real estate and financial-planning services, Broad has spent much time in recent years cheerleading and footing the bill for civic causes, such as the Disney Concert Hall downtown. His direct intervention on education issues has evolved considerably from the checkbook politics of the school-board race.

In a compromise, the school board expanded the search committee to 11, adding both Broad and a parent representative. From that moment, Broad stepped beyond his formal role, which was to help review applicants submitted by a professional search firm. Broad quickly joined directly in recruiting efforts, dashing across L.A. and across the country in search of a suitable savior for LAUSD.

Board member Victoria Castro, who had watched Broad’s money help sink political allies on the school board, raised a point of order. The school board, she noted, had explicitly separated finding candidates (the job of the search firm) from screening them (the job of the appointed committee), but Broad was now playing both roles. Would candidates recruited by Broad have an unfair advantage when they came before a screening committee that included Broad? Castro‘s concerns were essentially ignored; most of her colleagues were either too timid to challenge Broad -- and implicitly Mayor Riordan -- or simply didn’t care. Some were grateful for Broad‘s extra effort.

To hear them tell it, Broad and Romer didn’t know each other before planning began for the Democratic National Convention, which Los Angeles will host in August. Broad has been one of the key local organizers, funders and fund-raisers for the convention. Romer, a three-term governor of Colorado who left office in 1998, was chair of the Democratic National Convention Committee.

”Romer and I have had a number of meetings from the time he was head of the Democratic National Convention,“ Broad told the Weekly. But both men also share another common cause: education reform.

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