Belief in education drives CEO finalist Booker draws praise in Calif., but unions question his methods

May 17, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- One might expect Robert Booker, at age 68, to be looking forward to his retirement in some lovely spot along the coast of Southern California. Instead, he is thinking about his impoverished roots in Texas, friends say, and his abiding belief that education is the only escape from poverty.

And so this soft-spoken, reserved, chief financial officer in the San Diego County government wants to come east to Baltimore to lead a school system where the average fifth-grader reads on a third-grade level.

"Why would Bob do this?" says Harry Handler, a former Los Angeles school superintendent who was Booker's boss in the 1980s.

It was a question he had asked Booker in a telephone conversation last week.

For the first time, the very private Booker shared with Handler, a man he worked closely with for seven years, the story of his childhood and how he saw an education as his ticket out.

"Bob has a commitment to kids in areas like Baltimore, and Bob wants these kids to learn," Handler said of Booker, one of three finalists interviewed May 9 for the job of chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools.

The other two candidates are Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who oversees 12 of New York City's most troubled schools, and Edward J. Kelly III, a former chief executive officer of Union Memorial Hospital who still lives in Baltimore.

Booker appears to be the leading candidate, according to sources in Baltimore. In Los Angeles, where he spent 37 years in the school system, working his way up from accountant to the chief business and financial officer, and in San Diego, where he ++ has spent the past five and a half years, Booker has left a trail of supporters as well as some discontented union leaders.

Reputation for integrity

Those who have worked closely with him say that Booker is first of all a man of integrity who has little trouble telling people what he thinks.

"If someone wants to do something stupid with money, he will look you in the eye and say, 'No.' And he will say it on public television or in private session," said his current boss, Lawrence Prior, the chief administrative officer of San Diego County.

He did exactly that in Los Angeles. In 1989, with teachers on strike demanding a 24 percent increase in pay over three years, Booker told the school board the district could not afford the raise. At the time, each 1 percent raise for teachers cost $18 million.

"He told us 10 ways from Sunday not to do it," said Rita Walters, a Los Angeles city councilwoman and former school board member. "The board did it anyway."

In the early 1990s, Walters said, Booker's prediction proved true, and the school board was forced to cut salaries.

It is a legacy that has left teachers not at all pleased with Booker, who they believe did not try to devise creative ways to cut expenses in other areas to accommodate a pay increase.

"The reason that no one liked Bob is because no one ever believed he was telling the truth about the budget," said John Perez, United Teachers Los Angeles vice president. "He never gave us a straight answer. He was the master of obfuscation."

It was at this time that union leaders gave him the nickname "New Math Bob."

Perez says he regards Booker as "a bean counter" and "consummate bureaucrat," not an educator. "It depends what you want. Do you want a guy to build budgets with the best of them, then get Bob," Perez said. "I don't look at him as a great innovator."

And Day Higuchi, president of the Los Angeles teachers union, said, "Bob Booker is an accountant, not an educator. I wouldn't recommend him for a superintendent job."

But in fact Baltimore's school board says it would like to find someone with a business background to head the school system, and other school boards around the country searching for new leaders are likewise looking at candidates who don't have the traditional educational backgrounds.

Knowledge of education

Walters, the Los Angeles council member, believes that the unassuming Booker has a greater knowledge of educational issues than many realize. Booker was a finalist for the job of superintendent for the Los Angeles schools in the late 1980s, Walters said.

When he was in the running for the superintendent job, Walters said, "everyone was surprised at the depth of his knowledge about the educational issues -- the curriculum, ideas about teaching. He was very current with things. He paid a lot of attention to research that led specifically to educational outcomes."

Walters was one who thought that the district should do a national search for the new superintendent, and the board did. "Hindsight being 20-20, I think we should have hired Bob Booker."

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