A General's Strategy Backfires
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 27, 1998; Page B01
When retired Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. was tapped 16 months ago to rescue the decaying D.C. public school system, he was hailed as tough, quick to ferret out problems and committed to seeing the job done.
Yesterday, after the schools chief executive announced he was stepping down in June, he was praised as a man of honor and integrity. But politicians, colleagues and others agreed that he lacked the vision, experience and flexibility to revitalize one of the country's most troubled school systems.
"He didn't bring the skills that were necessary for this particular time and this particular city," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).
"I think General Becton had honorable intentions, but he came into a difficult situation without an urban academic background, and he had a disinclination to work with the community," said council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), head of the Education Committee.
Becton joined the school system in November 1996. A retired Army general who once headed Prairie View A&M University near Houston, as well as the nation's disaster relief agency, he had no experience in urban education. He vowed to fix the city's crumbling school buildings, reform a nightmarish personnel operation and raise some of the nation's worst test scores. He said he was in for the long haul.
Becton had some success: initiating academic reform, ridding the system of some of its worst administrators and making progress on fixing the dysfunctional special education unit. But his priorities soon came into question, and he could not solve basic problems that had long plagued the system, including something so seemingly simple as figuring just how many students are enrolled in the school system. He failed to keep a key promise to open the schools on time last fall; they opened three weeks late.
In recent weeks, he was stung by a series of departures -- including his chief financial officer, who was fired by a top city official, and his facilities chief, who resigned. And he became more isolated as his academic reforms seemed on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, the system's personnel operation remained in shambles.
"You cannot have compromise with the bureaucracy in the D.C. public schools," said Abdusalem Omer, the city's chief budget officer, who said that Becton had honorable intentions but refused to engage in serious personnel reform. "You have to go out and reform it."
Last week, Becton was said to have been stunned by a report by Anthony A. Williams, the District's chief financial officer, that slammed his administration. It said that although systematic changes were being addressed in academic support programs and individual schools, "little change has occurred" in central administration and "an organizational culture of indifference and resistance" still permeates the work force.
When Becton first arrived, longtime critics of past school administrations said they were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, and education activists sought to work with him to identify the system's troubles, review failures and seek solutions.
But they quickly learned that neither he nor his bosses on the D.C. Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees were interested in community involvement. Becton tuned out the elected school board, which had been stripped of its authority by the D.C. financial control board when it appointed Becton and the trustees. So critics and activists watched the administration try things they knew from experience wouldn't work, and they grew more and more frustrated.
Becton, who seemed aloof to outsiders but genial and caring to those who knew him well, conceded yesterday at a news conference that his biggest mistake was failing to include the community.
"If I had one silver bullet, it would be greater parental and community involvement," he said. "I did not go out to generate, to develop as much community and parental involvement as I should have."
Becton's approach was marked by a military-like rigidity in problem solving that made it difficult for him to listen to others and work toward compromise.
He initially turned his attention to fixing leaky school roofs, essentially ignoring calls that he pay attention to academic reform. He failed to hire a chief academic officer for nearly a year. The ultimate appointment of Arlene Ackerman, who is expected to succeed Becton as superintendent, is considered by many as one of his most important accomplishments.
He ran into trouble with other appointments. Becton hired an old friend, Gen. Charles E. Williams, to head facilities, ignoring the fact that Williams had left a similar job in New York City after being accused of failing to perform adequately.
Interference by D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian in the repairing of dozens of school roofs and boilers wreaked havoc with Becton's facilities plans. Chafing under the legal requirement of having to ask her permission to make any changes, he sometimes tried to work around the judge, which infuriated her. And after months of refusing to compromise with Parents United, the education advocacy organization that brought the suit about fire code violations, he finally agreed to a settlement that might have been reached much earlier.
But despite his emphasis on facilities, much work remains: Williams fixed more than 60 roofs in a hasty repair program last summer, leading to the delay in the opening of schools, but many other roofs need repair -- and some schools were freezing this winter because of broken boilers.
Becton did fire some administrators, but he never made wholesale personnel changes like those that Anthony Williams made when he took over as the District's chief financial officer. Becton will leave behind a personnel operation that is still in such chaos that some teachers don't get paychecks and files are incomplete or missing. According to a source knowledgeable about the school system's operations, hundreds of people are on the payroll who don't belong, forcing payment of millions of dollars in unauthorized salaries.
"If there was one thing I wish he had been able to get a grip on, it would be the personnel division," said Mary Levy, an attorney for Parents United. "Because when personnel is not working, it really hinders anything else from working."
Becton supporters defended him yesterday, saying he had walked into a nearly impossible situation.
Said Joyce A. Ladner, the control board member who oversees the schools: "He will leave knowing that we now know a lot more about the needs of the schools than we knew before. He will leave knowing that he has put in place a team of people who can carry the educational mission, which is paramount, on into the future."
Becton said he was leaving because he was tired. He suggested he was undermined by enemies.
"The system is fixable . . . [but] it's going to take the city to want this system to work," he said. "I can assure you there are people in the city, for whatever reason, for their own purpose, who would like to see something else."
Asked who they are and what they want, he said, "Ask them."
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