Belief in education drives CEO finalist Booker draws praise in Calif., but unions question his methods


SAN DIEGO -- One might expect Robert Booker, at age 68, to be looking forward to his retirement in some lovely spot along the coast of Southern California. Instead, he is thinking about his impoverished roots in Texas, friends say, and his abiding belief that education is the only escape from poverty.

And so this soft-spoken, reserved, chief financial officer in the San Diego County government wants to come east to Baltimore to lead a school system where the average fifth-grader reads on a third-grade level.

"Why would Bob do this?" says Harry Handler, a former Los Angeles school superintendent who was Booker's boss in the 1980s.

It was a question he had asked Booker in a telephone conversation last week.

For the first time, the very private Booker shared with Handler, a man he worked closely with for seven years, the story of his childhood and how he saw an education as his ticket out.

"Bob has a commitment to kids in areas like Baltimore, and Bob wants these kids to learn," Handler said of Booker, one of three finalists interviewed May 9 for the job of chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools.

The other two candidates are Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who oversees 12 of New York City's most troubled schools, and Edward J. Kelly III, a former chief executive officer of Union Memorial Hospital who still lives in Baltimore.

Booker appears to be the leading candidate, according to sources in Baltimore. In Los Angeles, where he spent 37 years in the school system, working his way up from accountant to the chief business and financial officer, and in San Diego, where he ++ has spent the past five and a half years, Booker has left a trail of supporters as well as some discontented union leaders.

Reputation for integrity

Those who have worked closely with him say that Booker is first of all a man of integrity who has little trouble telling people what he thinks.

"If someone wants to do something stupid with money, he will look you in the eye and say, 'No.' And he will say it on public television or in private session," said his current boss, Lawrence Prior, the chief administrative officer of San Diego County.

He did exactly that in Los Angeles. In 1989, with teachers on strike demanding a 24 percent increase in pay over three years, Booker told the school board the district could not afford the raise. At the time, each 1 percent raise for teachers cost $18 million.

"He told us 10 ways from Sunday not to do it," said Rita Walters, a Los Angeles city councilwoman and former school board member. "The board did it anyway."

In the early 1990s, Walters said, Booker's prediction proved true, and the school board was forced to cut salaries.

It is a legacy that has left teachers not at all pleased with Booker, who they believe did not try to devise creative ways to cut expenses in other areas to accommodate a pay increase.

"The reason that no one liked Bob is because no one ever believed he was telling the truth about the budget," said John Perez, United Teachers Los Angeles vice president. "He never gave us a straight answer. He was the master of obfuscation."

It was at this time that union leaders gave him the nickname "New Math Bob."

Perez says he regards Booker as "a bean counter" and "consummate bureaucrat," not an educator. "It depends what you want. Do you want a guy to build budgets with the best of them, then get Bob," Perez said. "I don't look at him as a great innovator."

And Day Higuchi, president of the Los Angeles teachers union, said, "Bob Booker is an accountant, not an educator. I wouldn't recommend him for a superintendent job."

But in fact Baltimore's school board says it would like to find someone with a business background to head the school system, and other school boards around the country searching for new leaders are likewise looking at candidates who don't have the traditional educational backgrounds.

Knowledge of education

Walters, the Los Angeles council member, believes that the unassuming Booker has a greater knowledge of educational issues than many realize. Booker was a finalist for the job of superintendent for the Los Angeles schools in the late 1980s, Walters said.

When he was in the running for the superintendent job, Walters said, "everyone was surprised at the depth of his knowledge about the educational issues -- the curriculum, ideas about teaching. He was very current with things. He paid a lot of attention to research that led specifically to educational outcomes."

Walters was one who thought that the district should do a national search for the new superintendent, and the board did. "Hindsight being 20-20, I think we should have hired Bob Booker."

Booker is described as reserved, an introvert who appreciates the need to come out of his shell at times and work a crowded room like a politician. But he is a person who offers few details about his personal life. He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that he doesn't feel it appropriate to talk to the press while he is a candidate in Baltimore.

Booker is divorced and the father of two daughters -- one a lawyer in Chicago, the other a senior education major at the University of Southern California.

His supporters say he is always the professional and has no trouble negotiating with New York bankers. He is described as steady and calm, a good listener and a man who works behind the scenes to develop a consensus on issues. No one seems to have seen him lose his temper or his cool.

"He makes haste carefully. He thinks out the ramifications of things," said Barry I. Newman, a retired banker in San Diego who is active in the community here.

Booker is prepared on whatever subject he is talking about, several supporters said.

"There is an appearance of gentleness about him, and yet there is a will of steel," said Newman.

"He is warm, but stern," said Henry Jones, who now has Booker's old job in the Los Angeles schools.

Doctorate from Pepperdine

Booker, who has a doctorate in education from Pepperdine University, started his career in public education in 1956 in the Los Angeles Unified School District as an assistant director for data processing. A decade later, he was head accountant, and by 1982 he was named controller and chief financial officer.

At the time he got the job, Handler said, the state was going broke, and "those were really difficult times for the school system."

Handler, the Los Angeles superintendent at the time, said Booker helped him through the worst of the cuts, including the demotion or reassignment of some 500 administrators.

The school district again faced financial difficulties in 1992, and Booker presided over the cutting of more than $275 million from a $4 billion school budget. Six months later, another deficit developed -- this one $150 million -- apparently because the school system had failed to budget health benefits for some teachers and because revenue was lower than projected.

Some board members blamed Booker and his staff for the second, unanticipated deficit, and the superintendent suspended him for several days for the miscalculation.

The punishment was later withdrawn, and senior school officials from that time say they believed that Booker had been warning the school board for months about the impending deficit but that the board ignored him.

A year later, at age 62, he left the Los Angeles school district with a pension of about $125,000 a year and moved to San Diego to be the chief financial officer, a job that also pays $125,000 a year. Once again he was asked to straighten out a government in difficult financial shape.

"The county was nearing the edge of bankruptcy," said Scott Barnett, executive director of the San Diego Taxpayers Association, which is a fiscal watchdog group.

The county had built a trash-to-energy incinerator that had become an enormous financial drain because of the debt service. In addition, a financial crisis in nearby Orange County spilled over to San Diego County, which had run into trouble with some of the same types of investment securities, including derivatives, that Orange County had.

Barnett and San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox both said Booker was instrumental in helping the county sell off the trash-to-energy plant and get through the financial hard times. The county has recently seen its bond rating rise, and it has reserves of $50 million, compared with $2 million only a few years ago.

"I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Booker," said Cox, the highest-ranking elected official in the county. "I think he was an integral part of the team that allowed us to dig out."

Currently, Booker works under a flamboyant county administrator. "I am the young, type-A, white guy from TRW [Inc.]. He is an aristocratic gentleman of the old school. Put us together and we can have a lot of fun. We speak the same language: numbers," said Prior.

Privately, county officials say that Prior is the idea guy and Booker is the solid, stable hand behind the scenes, helping keep Prior from making too many mistakes with the bureaucracy.

"He is basically invisible now for the average citizen," Barnett said of Booker, wondering aloud how he would do if he were the one on the hot seat taking questions from irate parents at school board meetings in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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