A military man's battle Education: A retired three-star Army general has been named to bring order to the District of Columbia public school system.

February 02, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The retired three-star Army general is urging a crowd of parents and teachers not to be nervous because a military man has been summoned to take over this city's crumbling public school system.

But Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. can't get very far before he is interrupted by Doreen Moses, a district schoolteacher. "We're for it!" she yells from her seat at a neighborhood meeting. "We're not fretful at all."

On this night, few folks seem to mind that Becton has taken charge of the city's 157 public schools. In fact, they seem grateful for it.

Becton, 70, who came to power in a shake-up in November, has more authority over the education of district children than anyone else in this city. He doesn't answer to Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. or other local officials, and he cannot be fired by the voters.

Critics say the arrangement is tantamount to a dictatorship.

But Becton -- a decorated veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- is not easily bullied. Since leaving the Army, he has built a successful second career solving civilian problems. The D.C. schools, he believes, are one more troubled institution that could benefit from a general's none-too-gentle touch.

"We must re-establish the credibility of the school system in the minds of all constituents," Becton said in a recent interview. "The citizens have had enough."

Loss of autonomy

The district's control board, a panel Congress created to clean up the city's financial mess, ousted Becton's predecessor, Franklin L. Smith, and diminished the school board's authority. It gave Becton the title chief executive officer and conferred extraordinary powers upon him. Now, not surprisingly, some see Becton as a symbol of the district's loss of autonomy.

"This is about as close to a dictatorship as public institutions come in this country," said school board member Jay Silberman. "A benevolent despot is still a despot."

The desire for better schools has enabled people to look past the "bloodless coup" that put Becton in power, said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor and commentator on district affairs. "There is a public hunger for some kind of valiant knight to ride in and rescue everybody," he said. "Becton is still riding that wave of popular hope."

'Children first'

Becton says simply that he wants instead to put "children first." His prescription for upgrading the system includes reducing school violence, creating smaller classes, raising teacher pay and conducting surprise school inspections.

Becton makes $125,000 annually, $20,000 less than Smith; however, he has come under fire in recent days for the high

salaries he is paying top aides.

Meanwhile, the general wants answers to some of the school system's embarrassing unknowns -- such as how many students are enrolled, how many teachers are on the payroll, and how many school workers go unpaid, or overpaid, through poor management.

While the district spent $6,767 per student in the 1995-1996 school year -- more than the national average of $5,653 -- the system's student-teacher ratio, Scholastic Assessment Test scores and teacher salaries are worse than in surrounding counties.

Improvement in 5 years

Becton, who has promised to stay until June 2000, predicts it will take five years for conditions to improve.

Although some critics attack Becton because he is not an academic, others praise his record as one of effective leadership. He held four-year stints as president of Prairie View A&M University and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- two institutions that, like the D.C. public

schools, had been hurt by low morale and public mistrust.

But it is his military experience that gets Becton noticed.

As schools chief, Becton's no-nonsense bearing and make-it-happen curtness have disarmed political opponents and reassured many concerned parents. In his commander-speak, Becton offers "strategic plans" and "major objectives" and vows that "failure is not an option."

An enlisted man in World War II, Becton became one of the first black officers in the newly desegregated Army in 1948. Even now, his circle of advisers includes four former military men.

There are few ambiguities in the Becton world. Things are either right or wrong. In his office, he keeps a list called "Philosophy of Life" with numbered principles, such as "Integrity Is Non-Negotiable" and "Chain of Command Works -- If We Use It."

When faced with a tough question, he has been known to refer subordinates to the list, and bark, "Number Six!" A recent addition to the list: "Children First."

Armed guards

Although Becton said he wants schools to decide many of their own policies, he favors some military-style solutions, such as school uniforms, armed guards in violent schools and "payday muster" -- an Army method of delivering paychecks to figure out who actually reports to work.

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