Top of the Class

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.

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.


Broad had recently endowed an education foundation, while Romer sought ”to spend my time on education -- education reform nationally -- and I had begun the steps to help create a national dialogue on educational reform.“

Broad recalled that during a meeting at his Century City office, Romer ”asked me about our family‘s foundation and told me about his avid interest in education and about how he wanted to do more. I said, ’Roy, the most important job in K-through-12 education is superintendent of L.A. Unified. You ought to think about that.‘

“I was half kidding,” said Broad, because it was almost too much to hope that the post would go to Romer, a a national political leader and a successful, education-focused governor.

When Romer did not reject the suggestion outright, Broad quickly alerted Ed Hamilton, who runs the search firm that was assisting L.A. Unified.

“I had no intention to take a superintendent’s job,” Romer told reporters last week. But when Broad made his proposition, “I seriously did take a look at it, and when I looked, every issue that I cared about in education . . . all of those issues were here on the table in L.A., and it was a question of conscience. And that was: Did I want to go off in a think-tank atmosphere or did I want to get down on the street and work with others on the problem? And I concluded it‘s better to walk your talk than to talk.”

Romer immediately began touring schools and taking notes. “I didn’t ever campaign for the job in the sense of asking somebody else to help me get it. But I did say, vigorously, ‘I’d like to do that job.‘ And I have no hesitancy. I wasn’t playing coy. And the reason for it: This is a tremendous opportunity.”

The sure-footed response is all Romer, well practiced at turning a political tightrope into a four-lane expressway. But the school board was not immediately won over. For one thing, Romer was applying for this high-energy, high-tension job at 71, nearly the same age as former Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, whom the new board majority treated like a relic before forcing him out last fall. And unlike Zacarias, Romer has only superficial knowledge about Los Angeles, L.A. Unified and even about how school districts operate. And while it was easy to visualize Romer making uplifting speeches over rubber-chicken benefit dinners, it also was possible to imagine a retired governor coasting through banker‘s hours with his feet on the desk.

“When I first heard about Romer, I thought there was no way I would vote for someone who had held such a lofty position as governor of a state, someone who would wave to the crowds like Queen Elizabeth,” said school-board member Valerie Fields. “I was worried about having somebody from such a high position, that we wouldn’t have a hands-on person. No ex-governor is going to look at dirty bathrooms. But I was wrong.”

Like other board members, Fields spoke about the selection process in general terms, saying she could not disclose what specifically transpired in closed-door board deliberations. But a variety of district sources, speaking off the record, paint a fairly consistent picture of what happened.

In early deliberations, Fields, as well as board president Genethia Hayes, expressed reservations about Romer. But who else was there? All the names on the first shortlist -- except Romer -- were either unavailable or uninterested. “It was kind of a little bizarre,” commented one board member. “We would be given a list of five, and most did not want the job.” Still, one person seemed too good to pass up, and it wasn‘t Romer.

Henry Cisneros, whose political experience includes stints as mayor of San Antonio and as President Clinton’s housing secretary, would have brought many of Romer‘s political skills to the job, as well as a Latino heritage in a school district that is about 70 percent Latino. Cisneros also has resided locally for three years, working as a top executive for Univision, the Spanish-language television network. Nor is he a total stranger to LAUSD, having served on a volunteer committee charged with reforming district business practices.

In an interview, Cisneros recalled that, early on in the search process, Broad picked his brain for superintendent possibilities. And, in fact, Romer’s name came up. Then, near the end of the chat, “He said, ‘You wouldn’t yourself be interested?‘ . . . It was not on my radar screen, not on the horizon.” Shortly after, Cisneros got a call from the search firm. He said he talked to the screening committee “as a resource,” not a candidate, but he ended up on the shortlist anyway, and board members left him there even after being told that Cisneros could not be persuaded.


How about if Cisneros were offered the job outright, without having to compete further? offered one board member. Within minutes, all board members had decided to woo Cisneros with a direct overture. Someone suggested that Broad could be the board’s emissary, but not all board members trusted Broad; besides, they decided, this role was too important to delegate. It was agreed that board president Hayes would ferry the deal.

Ultimately, both Hayes and Broad met with Cisneros and his wife at Broad‘s Century City office. The location was convenient because Univision and SunAmerica, Broad’s financial-planning powerhouse, share the same Century City office building, and, on that day, Cisneros was tied down by a shareholders meeting. Cisneros remembers only one specific meeting with Broad about the job between the initial overture and the conclave with Hayes. But besides crossing paths in the elevator, both Broad and Cisneros are in regular contact due to their joint role in raising funds for the August Democratic Convention.

Broad recalled that he thought Cisneros was won over until Cisneros called back late that night and declined once and for all.

Cisneros, 53, said he turned down the offer because of long-range plans to return to his hometown, San Antonio, where much of his family lives, including his elderly father. L.A. Unified, he said, deserved a commitment of at least half a dozen years. “This was much bigger than a job decision for me,” he said. “It was kind of a life decision.”

With Cisneros dropping out, two finalists remained: Romer and George Munoz, a well-regarded Clinton administration official who‘d served four years on the Chicago Board of Education. Some board members seemed ready to pick Romer after meeting with him for two and a half hours on Thursday, June 1. These included Valerie Fields, Julie Korenstein and board president Genethia Hayes, who was pushing the board to reach a decision. They all knew that well-liked Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines planned to leave by July 1.

Castro and board member David Tokofsky, who are political enemies historically, joined forces to protest the haste. Castro stormed from the room a couple of times, bartering a slowdown of the process as a condition for her return. All the while, the search firm scrambled for additional contenders.

One of these was John Murphy, a former superintendent from Charlotte, North Carolina, who impressed Tokofsky. But there was stronger support for Munoz, who had become the favorite of Castro. Then, late in the game, a Florida administrator, Carmen Varela-Russo, emerged from the middle of the pack.

By Monday, June 5, the day before Romer was named, it was between Romer, Munoz and Varela-Russo, whose name was kept confidential because she also was interviewing elsewhere. Board members were impressed with Munoz’s intellect and appreciated his Latino heritage and Spanish-language skills. His relative youth -- he‘s in his late 40s -- also offered a clear alternative to Romer. But some were not convinced that he’d absorbed the necessary expertise from his stint as an appointed school-board member in Chicago. They also noted teacher unrest during that period in Chicago, for which Romer offered a striking counterpoint. As governor, Romer had personally intervened to calm labor unrest and avoid teacher strikes on two occasions.

That left Romer and Varela-Russo, 64, who was the associate superintendent for technology, strategic planning and accountability in Broward County, Florida, one of the nation‘s larger school districts, with 240,000 students. (L.A. Unified has 712,000 students.) Previously, in New York City, Varela-Russo worked her way up from teacher to superintendent of the Bronx schools, and then to chief executive of all high schools in New York City, the nation’s largest school district. She‘d been a finalist for several superintendent jobs.

Board members found her energetic, and some remarked on a level of detail and knowledge-from-experience in her responses that Romer, the non-educator, could not match. At the same time, one or two were initially put off by her in-your-face New York mien. Board member Caprice Young became her most vocal advocate, theorizing that Varela-Russo was the victim of a glass ceiling. Like Munoz, Varela-Russo is Latino and bilingual. Castro seemed as though she might join in supporting Varela-Russo. At least one board member didn’t feel as though Varela-Russo outshone administrators already working in the district.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 6, the momentum gathering for Romer persuaded the entire board to make the choice unanimous, to avoid any impression of rancor.


Varela-Russo made out okay too. This week, she got the top job in the Baltimore city school system.

Some cynics speculate that the fix was in for Romer almost from the start. They cite Broad‘s closeness to Riordan and board members’ consultations with attorney Bill Wardlaw, Riordan‘s political consigliere. Why was Romer the only available choice on the initial shortlist? Was the Cisneros gambit a feint toward an unavailable candidate? Was Varela-Russo the last finalist because it was easier for Romer to shine in that head-to-head comparison? Was board president Hayes rushing the decision, even given the pressing need to fill the job?

“The bottom line is, the rich won out,” said board member Victoria Castro. “It was about power and money.” She conceded that her belief is a combination of gut instinct and circumstantial evidence.

Board member Caprice Young sighed wearily at the suggestion. In the case of Riordan, for whom she once worked as an assistant deputy mayor, “He’s a mentor. I call him for advice or help. We agree on some things. We fight about other things.” She added that she sought input from any number of sources, including community groups.

In an interview, Riordan said that he lobbied for no candidates. He did check them out, however, when he learned their identity from his own contacts or from reporters.

And how did attorney Wardlaw react to the notion of a Riordan-led conspiracy to call the shots?: “L.A. Unified would be absolutely blessed with every moment of time and attention it gets from Eli Broad and Richard Riordan. They are two of the most talented people in the city, and the school district should want more of their attention, not less.”

As for Romer, if he does as good a sales job in other quarters as he did on some school-board members, L.A. Unified has acquired a powerful advocate.

“Romer leaves you inspired,” commented board member Julie Korenstein. “You feel good. You feel he will help us from our troubled times to a better future.”

Maybe he‘ll even lead the school system to more help from Eli Broad, who told the Weekly that he was done with direct involvement at L.A. Unified for now. Part of Romer’s challenge may be to change Broad‘s mind, and also to bring forward other big-money players, particularly given the imperative to find land and funding for the 100 new schools needed by the overcrowded school district.

At the end of Romer’s news conference, a reporter wanted to know: Could Broad help Romer build schools?

“That‘s a good idea,” said Romer, looking hopefully in that direction.

“We’ll do all we can,” Broad said simply.

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