Financial manager to head city schools Board's unanimous choice ends search for superintendent

May 26, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

The difficult nine-month search for a new city schools chief will officially end today when Robert Booker, the finance chief in San Diego County, is introduced as the school board's choice.

Booker, 68, was the favorite among three finalists who met with members of the community two weeks ago. He accepted the job Sunday after the board voted unanimously to offer it to him. Details of his two-year contract -- including his salary -- still must be worked out.

Booker is in Baltimore today to meet with key staff members and will be present at a 2 p.m. press conference announcing his selection. He will begin working immediately with interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller to familiarize himself with the district and work out transition details. Booker will report to work officially after July 1.

Reached at his hotel yesterday, Booker said he hopes his time in Baltimore will change reality for the system's 108,000 students -- most of whom are reading at only a third-grade level by fifth grade and the majority of whom drop out before they graduate.

"I've seen too many children, particularly in large cities, whose lives aren't fulfilled because they haven't gotten the appropriate level of education," Booker said. "That's sometimes because there isn't the proper family focus on education and sometimes because the school system fails them. We need to change that."

Booker is more pensive than impulsive, more methodical than flamboyant. Don't expect grand pronouncements or radical changes within his first few weeks on the job, he says. Rather, he will meet with senior staff to "assess the risks that prevent them from achieving" and work out plans to focus on how to do better.

"I like to think about things that need to be done and then come up with ways to do them," Booker said. "I don't shoot from the hip. In my experience, you can't shoot from the hip and be successful."

Board members expressed excitement yesterday over Booker's acceptance. They also breathed sighs of relief that their tedious search is over.

"This has been a very long, hard process, but we're sure we've got the right guy and we're very excited about him," said board member Ed Brody, who acted as the board's point man for the search. "He is very smart, a great manager and we expect him to do great things here in Baltimore."

Booker's selection ends an arduous search that stretched far beyond its original deadline of Dec. 1 and saw many frustrations and disappointments along the way. A national search firm was hired and then released when its candidates didn't pass muster. A favored candidate walked to the brink of taking the job but then backed off, leaving the school board with no acceptable alternative.

All the while, the board faced several obstacles to making a decision: Could someone from private industry be persuaded to put up with the public rigors of the job? Would someone from the public sector be too tolerant of the system's bureaucracy? Should race matter in the choice?

Booker, say many observers, should satisfy almost everyone.

A former high-ranking administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District and an accountant, Booker impressed board members with his reserved demeanor and keen intellect.

He doesn't dazzle with a new idea every minute or project the image of a tireless workaholic, observers say. But he "grows on you" in time and overpowers with his sense of reason and judgment.

Board Chairman Tyson Tildon sums him up this way:

"Let's say you come to a river you have to cross and you have two choices. You can swim, and risk getting a cramp in the middle and drowning, or you can take the time to cut some logs and build a raft, which is the sure way to get across. Booker would always build the raft."

Booker grew up in a poor family in Texas and made his own way to a better life -- a background many board members say is ideal for the job. As a high-ranking black executive, Booker can serve as a role model for students, most of whom are from low-income families.

"Education was one of the tickets to my so-called success in life," said Booker, who survived a childhood in a home with no running water to become head of finance for one of the country's largest school districts and one of California's richest counties. "I learned early on that you need the support of a good education if you want to achieve."

Above all, Booker is said to be a strong manager.

Booker's tenure in the Los Angeles school district gives him important educational background, said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, one of the key legislators behind city school reform. Even though he served primarily in a financial capacity, Booker says he was involved in discussions surrounding all the major new academic programs in that system.

Booker's experience handling San Diego County's $2.4 billion annual budget, Rawlings said, gives him the necessary management background.

"I think he will immediately look at this school system, see how it is organized and how decisions get made, and begin to make change," Rawlings said. "He's also at a point in his career where he won't be as concerned about his own future, so he'll be able to make tough decisions."

Michael Hamilton, president of the parent and community advisory committee, said Booker impressed him two weeks ago. But Hamilton believes the key to Booker's success will be what kind of team he builds.

"He clearly was intelligent, and I felt he had a great background as a manager, but I worried a little that he didn't have a clear educational agenda," Hamilton said. "I think you'd have those kinds of questions with anyone from the business sector, and it will just come down to how well he can use other people's educational vision once he gets here."

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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