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N.Y. Chooses Lawyer to Run City's Schools

July 30, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Monday named Joel Klein--the former Justice Department prosecutor who led the legal battle to break up Microsoft Corp.--as chancellor of the nation's largest public school system.

Klein, who ran the Justice Department's antitrust division for nearly four years but has limited education credentials, will begin overseeing the city's troubled public schools and its 1.1 million students within several weeks.

His appointment continues a trend of big cities appointing non-educators to run public school systems. In recent years, Chicago hired Paul Vallas, the city's budget chief; former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer was chosen to head the Los Angeles Unified School District; San Diego picked former U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin; and, before Klein, New York had turned to Harold Levy, a former Wall Street banker.

Critics said it isn't yet clear that noneducators can overcome the deep-seated problems of illiteracy, eroding discipline and shrinking budgets in public school systems. Bloomberg and others, however, say public schools need the managerial savvy and no-nonsense approach of business experts.

"We think this trend, of hiring nontraditionals to run school districts, is a very good idea," said Dan Katzir, managing director of the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, which has a national program that trains future school superintendents. "Many of the nation's largest school districts have annual budgets that approach those of Fortune 500 companies, and they deserve the same kind of high-level managerial skills."

Most observers here reserved judgment. "Hopefully this very nontraditional choice will help us make the New York schools the best in the country. We'll have to wait and see," said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

At a news conference at Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, the new home for the city's school administration, Bloomberg predicted Klein's appointment would be a turning point in efforts to better manage the city school system's $12-billion annual budget. "We need somebody with intelligence, we need somebody that is innovative, we need somebody with impeccable integrity, we need somebody with management skills," he said. "We have found exactly that person in Joel Klein."

Anticipating questions about Klein's education experience--which consists of a brief stint as a New York public school math teacher--Bloomberg added: "The real issue is, can he manage people? He managed six or seven hundred lawyers. That's probably like herding cats, and if he can do that, he can certainly do this."

The surprise announcement ended a difficult search process for Bloomberg, who recently won near-total control of the public schools in a hard-fought battle with the teachers union, community groups and the state Legislature. To his obvious surprise, he was turned down by several prominent candidates for chancellor in recent weeks. Klein, a 55-year-old native New Yorker who attended public schools in Queens and Brooklyn, was not thought to be at the top of the mayor's list.

Indeed, a search team had screened more than a dozen people, including Vallas, who took a rival offer to run the Philadelphia school district. Bloomberg's deputies also interviewed Stanley Brezenoff, a former official in Mayor Edward I. Koch's administration; Vincent Grippo, a local school superintendent from Brooklyn; and Cleveland schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Klein, whose children attended private schools, said he was up to the challenge of revitalizing a school system that is plagued by an exodus of experienced teachers, plunging test scores and huge budget cutbacks. He grew up in a public housing project in Queens, before attending Columbia University and Harvard Law School. After leaving the Justice Department, he most recently headed the U.S. operations of Bertelsmann AG, the German media conglomerate.

"I pledge to do all that I can to give each child in the city of New York a first-rate education and the keys to unlock what this magnificent world has to offer," he said. "I know personally what it is like to look into the eyes of an infant and be filled with hopes and dreams. So I want to commit today to all the parents of New York City that I will be your special ally."

Klein's chances of doing that may have been increased by Bloomberg's victorious battle to gain control over--and accountability for--public schools, something none of his mayoral predecessors have been able to do for 30 years. On July 1, the state Legislature approved a major restructuring that gave him unprecedented power to determine public school budgets and also eliminated the politically powerful Board of Education. Under the new plan, Bloomberg appoints eight of the 13 members of a Panel for Educational Policy, who serve him in an advisory capacity.

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