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At Home on the Range With Romer

The retiring L.A. schools chief isn't ready to be put out to pasture. At 77, he's seeking yet another challenge.

October 06, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BAILEY, Colo. — Roy Romer is perched on the seat of a 100cc Honda dirt bike, snaking down a mountain trail high in the front range of the Rockies. He is 77, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools, a former three-term governor of Colorado, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a man who has rubbed shoulders with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and knocked elbows with Antonio Villaraigosa, and at the moment he is revving downhill helmet-free, looking a bit like a circus bear on a bicycle.

It has been a good morning, mostly. Romer has tracked down a herd of wayward cattle and has managed to slash his hand on jagged metal while cleaning out a culvert. ("I'm fine," he insists impatiently as blood streams down his hand and trickles onto the ground.)

Now, chores done, he is heading across his 900-acre ranch to the main house -- not to bandage his cut, not to admire the floor-to-ceiling views of the Rockies, but to pore restlessly through books and old papers until lunch.

"The thing is," he says during a break in a stand of pine and aspen, "when I retire from L.A., I can't just come and sit here. It doesn't cultivate the mind enough. I need to have ideas and action to keep my life interesting, and I run out of ideas and action up here."

A little more than six years ago, Romer came to this ranch and convened a family meeting around the big dining room table. His last term as governor was over and he had just returned home from Los Angeles, where he had run, more or less successfully, the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

During his L.A. sojourn, philanthropist and power broker Eli Broad had made a suggestion. Rather than retire to his mountain or take some cushy university post -- Romer had been talking to Harvard, among other institutions -- he could take a job that was practically synonymous with futility: He could run the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the most dysfunctional public institutions in America.

Here was a district that had proven itself incapable of so basic a task as building a high school. Academic achievement was dismal, and superintendents tended to get chewed up and spit out.

So, Romer wanted to know, what did his family think?

The family had been through this before, voting on whether he should take the Democratic National Committee job. That vote was 8-1 against, but since Romer himself cast the one "yes" vote, there was never really any question about the outcome. By now, the family knew better. With Romer, his wife, Bea, and their seven children taking part, the vote was 6-3 in favor, although, said son-in-law Tim Ammons, "we all did kind of think he was nuts to take it."

The time for another Romer family council is drawing near. Sometime in the next few weeks, Romer will leave his job in Los Angeles, after which he will move on to the next, and perhaps last, major phase of his working life.

He will leave a few enemies, as well as critics who believe that he failed to cultivate ties with the community and its leaders, moved too slowly to improve student achievement in high schools and was too much of a "top down" manager. But Romer has also won over some of his sharpest detractors and earned widespread praise for building dozens of new schools and dramatically raising student achievement in elementary schools.

"I would say the only superintendent who could claim as measurable accomplishments as Roy has would be Harry Handler, and that's more than 20 years ago," said former school board member Caprice Young, who said she was "extremely" skeptical of Romer when he was hired.

Romer says he's not sure yet what he will do next. He recently tested the education speaking circuit and found it wasn't for him. "I said, 'Romer, there's got to be more to life than this.' "


It is a Friday afternoon, and as he has done many times in the last six years at his own expense, he is heading home to Colorado for the weekend. With him is his wife, who normally divides her time equally between Venice, where they have a beachside apartment, and their home in Denver.

The departure gate at Los Angeles International Airport is crowded, but nobody appears to recognize the broad-shouldered man with the squared-off face who may be the most powerful unelected political leader in California.

It is a different story after the plane lands at Denver International Airport. As Romer walks through the sleek terminal, which he helped build, several people recognize him. One startled man drops the cellphone from his ear. "Hi, governor!" he says. Romer, clearly delighted, smiles and waves.

"This," he says, "is the difference for me between L.A. and here."

There's a Rodney Dangerfield aspect to the way Romer talks about his time in Los Angeles. Being superintendent, he says, taught him that rarest of qualities in a politician, humility. On his way to breakfast the day after landing in Denver, he ruminated on the strange career path of a governor becoming a school superintendent.

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