Roy Romer was the city's most sought-after public figure last week.
Since being named Tuesday to head the Los Angeles Unified School District, the former Colorado governor has been relentlessly pursued by national and local news media. Determined to set a high standard of accessibility, he made time for them all.
That left little time for briefings with district officials on the problems of building schools, raising test scores and leading a reorganization that goes into effect July 1, the same day he assumes command. Consequently, Romer said, he doesn't begin to have answers to the fundamental questions. He's comfortable answering, "I don't know," and sticks by it no matter how hard he's pushed.
Stocky of build and silver-haired, Romer projects an intensity that belies his 71 years. All the same, there's a grandfatherly touch in his demeanor.
Romer owns a John Deere dealership, and images of machines and transportation provide his most vivid form of expression.
During a one-hour interview Friday with Times reporters Louis Sahagun and Doug Smith, Romer kept a cell phone at hand and answered it several times. The caller was either his wife or one of his seven children, all among the wide circle of family, friends and associates who know the number. He always answers, he said with a shrug. You never know when it's going to be the president.
Question: What will be your strategy for marshaling the land and money needed to build schools for tens of thousands of new students?
Answer: It's a mistake for me to answer that question after two days on the job. I just can't talk about things that are very important unless I am prepared to talk about them. And I haven't been here long enough to be prepared to talk about a strategic plan.
I know the size of the need: 85 buildings by the year 2006, 2005. I know we have some money and there is Option A and Option B, depending on what happens with the state. You may be able to go 45 of them. You may be able to go 65. But you can't build 85.
I know there is a problem of either more year-round schooling until we get that capacity relief, or more year-round schooling even with that capacity relief.
You can think about some options. Can you rent? Can you not rent? Does the Field Act prevent you from doing this? I have not had an opportunity to do that homework. [The Field Act requires that schools meet stringent seismic standards.]
Q: But you're known to shoot from the hip. This week, you suggested installing televisions on school buses so the children could watch educational programs while on their way to and from class.
A: I do have a style when trying to find a better way of doing something. It stimulates others to think about it. I throw out new ideas and throw them out publicly, even at a press conference. That's a little bit risky. But I like mid-course corrections. Put your idea out on the table and say, "What do you think about this?" There's no loss in that. So you throw 10 ideas and nine don't work; try one that works.
Q: Tensions between racial factions have kept the district on edge for a long time. What are your plans to bridge differences between these different groups?
A: I have been scheduled a lot in the last 24 to 48 hours to talk to the press. I have been concerned about not being able to get on the phone and do some contacting that I obviously wanted to do. I am very focused upon not just groups, but also individuals that I think would like to hear from me and get to know me better. And I'd like to get to know them better. And I'm going to schedule that as quick as I can.
Q: Are you comfortable with interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines' reorganization plan?
A: I agree with the direction of it. First, the decentralization is wise. Second, the shrinking of the central headquarters and making it more of a service agency, rather than the larger organization that it was before, is wise. The emphasis on reading is correct. So I agree with all of those basic essentials.
Now, there's a whole lot to be done in the implementation of that plan. For example, how do you create 11 sub-districts and have the appropriate relationships between the central office and the 11 districts?
Let's give you an illustration of that. As you know, this district is in the process of figuring out how to do properly the retention of students at certain grades who are not up to grade level. Now it's not just retention, but it's intervention and it's prevention. You ought to try to prevent it from happening, but if it does happen, you've got to intervene, and then you have to retain when somebody can't respond to the intervention. Now you can't have 11 different policies for one district. You have to have one policy.
Q: Are you comfortable jumping into that implementation so abruptly?