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The Executive Education of a Novice Politician

Schwarzenegger's youth program is a rare test of his management skills. The results are mixed.

August 19, 2003|Michael Cieply and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

Arnold Schwarzenegger had a theory about how his national youth program should be run.

One of Schwarzenegger's intimates, environmental activist Bonnie Reiss, argued in a 1995 brainstorming session that tight central controls were needed to protect the movie star from any mistakes in a venture that would be closely associated with his name.

"That's your Democratic way of thinking," Reiss remembers Schwarzenegger correcting her. "Who are we in Los Angeles to tell Miami or New York or Atlanta how best to run their programs?"

Schwarzenegger insisted on what he saw as a more Republican model. His small, Santa Monica-based Inner-City Games Foundation would provide seed money, guidance and celebrity support to what became a relatively loose network of 15 separate though similarly named nonprofits around the country.

The results were mixed, according to some program administrators. The alliance quickly reached hundreds of thousands of youths with sports competitions and summer events. But its effectiveness, according to program's own administrators, was uneven. Sometimes, the big numbers reflected nothing more than a mass visit by deprived kids to a local Sea World.

The youth initiative, recently renamed "After-School All-Stars," has been a rare test of Schwarzenegger's management philosophy and skills -- issues that have moved center stage as the actor campaigns for the California governor's seat.

Although many of the candidate's business ventures are investments that don't require his direct supervision, he has been a key decision maker and driving force behind the foundation, of which he is chairman. The program may be the truest representation of Schwarzenegger's ability to execute his vision on a matter of public importance.

Without acknowledging missteps, Schwarzenegger said in an interview Monday: "I always believe we have to improve. I do not like to stand still."

In fact, Schwarzenegger is shifting his organization's direction, stressing accountability, tougher academics with daily after-school instruction and a measure of "Democratic"-style central control largely missing in the last eight years.

He said he continued to believe in decentralized management -- "we don't tell them what to do," he said of the foundation's affiliates. But he also said he expected more discipline from his group as it competed for scarce public funds.

"We have to now concentrate on accountability," he said. "Otherwise, we will not get the federal funding."

Next week, top All-Star executives will meet to hear Schwarzenegger and the Santa Monica foundation's new chief executive, American Red Cross veteran Frank Donoghue, review their performance and describe a new licensing agreement under which the affiliates will operate. Beginning Nov. 1, the associated groups will be required to focus on much smaller numbers of children, providing them with highly structured after-school programs geared to show measurable results.

Donoghue, who was handpicked by Schwarzenegger, acknowledged in an interview that the After-School network was short of its targets. "No, they're not reaching maximum capacity," he said.

Many of the local organizations needed to strengthen their own boards to raise money for the deeper, five-day-a-week after-school sessions Schwarzenegger is demanding from each of them and to comply with the foundation's new insistence on measurement, Donoghue said.

"We know there needs to be more responsibility, more evaluation," said Roberto Gonzalez, executive director of the Houston affiliate. "You can't just ask for money because you have good intentions."

The reorientation, in the making for more than a year, is said to reflect Schwarzenegger's acknowledgment that the earlier system wasn't accomplishing enough, and a growing belief that deprived children will rise through society if they are pointed toward the kind of disciplined self-improvement that made the Austrian immigrant a champion and star.

"The national office is catching up," said Philadelphia affiliate Executive Director Donna Frisby-Greenwood, who describes her own program as having pioneered that more disciplined approach. "I'm glad to see they're strengthening things in Santa Monica."

According to associates, Schwarzenegger is frustrated that new funding for after-school programs hasn't become available despite last year's passage of Proposition 49, which he championed, as a weak economy kept state revenue from expanding by $1.5 billion -- a threshold that must be met before the added school funds flow.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger said he had no quarrel with the statutory threshold, which, in his view, keeps the after-school initiative from putting a dent in emergency services.

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