The cavernous hall darkened, the theme from "Star Wars" swelled, and the giant video screen filled with an adoring tribute to "The Glow of Flo." It was Friday afternoon at the annual D.C. teachers convention, the last in a two-week series of farewells, the last chance for thousands of school workers to say goodbye to Floretta Dukes McKenzie, the superintendent who left office Feb. 5.
Less than an hour later, Andrew Jenkins, McKenzie's deputy for the past six years, sat in the 12th-floor superintendent's office in the school administration building on 12th Street NW. The walls were stripped of McKenzie's dozens of awards, the couches now lined with boxes instead of the overflow plaques and proclamations.
Jenkins will be acting superintendent of the 87,000-student school system for at least five months. A reticent and conservative 50-year-old who has been in the D.C. schools since his days in teachers college, Jenkins steps into a volatile position:
Despite McKenzie's improvements in academic quality, the District school system still is plagued by the continuing frustration of poor achievement levels. It faces its toughest budget battle in years. And it is reeling from the same social ills that beset the city: an epidemic of drugs and violence that seems to have escalated with a sudden vengeance.
Jenkins' first week was not exempt from crisis. Two junior high school boys at Friendship Education Center in Southeast were caught carrying guns, propelling the new school system chief to order a review of school security measures.
But Jenkins says he will be neither a crisis manager nor a caretaker through this spring. Instead, he pledges to keep the system moving forward, emphasizing achievement levels in secondary schools and even launching new programs that he refuses to specify "because I haven't told the board about them yet."
This is, Jenkins hopes, no temporary task. A 27-year veteran of the D.C. schools, Jenkins is one of 47 candidates seeking to replace McKenzie. So this interim period is more than a new job; it is a campaign.
"I am in the fishbowl now and I'm going to do well," he said. "Certainly I know this represents a trial period for me. I am hoping the new superintendent will be selected by July, and I am hoping that it will be the acting superintendent."
Jenkins, who was one of four finalists for the top job in 1981, when McKenzie got the nod, has both supporters and detractors on the school board. But a majority of the board remains genuinely uncommitted. But all the members will be looking closely at Jenkins' performance, beginning Thursday, when he leads the school system's contingent in testifying before the D.C. Council for the proposed $482 million budget.
Mayor Marion Barry has proposed cutting the school board's budget request to $448 million. Board members say that would cut the heart out of many of McKenzie's major accomplishments, including smaller classes and improved building conditions. It will be up to Jenkins to persuade the council to reject Barry's plan.
"Dr. Jenkins has more to lose than to gain," said board member Nate Bush (Ward 7). "If he does a good job, that's what was expected. If he does not do a good job, it would hurt his chances."
Bush said he expects no new programs during Jenkins' tenure, primarily because of fiscal constraints, but other board members want to see action.
"If you're the backup quarterback and you get a chance to start, are you going to be a caretaker, or are you going to show what you can do?" said board member R. David Hall (Ward 2), who is in charge of the search for a new superintendent. "If he's got it in him, let's see it now."
Hall specifically wants action on the school system's poor athletics program, the subject of a scathing task force report late last year. And he says the system's career education and college placement efforts need immediate reform.
Board President Linda Cropp (Ward 4) wants "to see us get a handle on a values curriculum by September. With what's happening in our city, we need to talk about right and wrong, how you treat your fellow man."
Doing anything new will not be easy. Associate Superintendent James Guines, who served as acting chief for six months before McKenzie was picked, said the interim job is "tough, very tough. I had a board that was jittery because the public blamed it for the departure of a popular superintendent, Vincent Reed. Now no one is blaming the board for getting rid of Dr. McKenzie. And we don't have any crisis that needs immediate resolution.
"But anything can happen any day. And it is too little time to get any new ideas through. That's ridiculous to even attempt -- this is a very big system. But you cannot be just a caretaker. He will sit in front of the city council arguing for that budget, and then you have to go up on the Hill. That is real."
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. As recently as last month, the school board had no intention of appointing an interim head.
From the moment last summer when McKenzie announced her intention to leave to form an education consulting group, board members assured parents that a new superintendent would be chosen so quickly that the outgoing and incoming chiefs would have several months to work together.
That was not to be. McKenzie, who attended fewer and fewer board meetings and took more and more days off through the fall, made it clear she would leave for good in February. And the application deadline for the top job was extended from Dec. 31 to March 15, primarily because only 47 people filed resumes the first time around.
Hall said his search committee will finish selecting and screening finalists by mid-March. A new superintendent will be chosen in May and could take office by July, he said.
The new superintendent will have a tall task in replacing McKenzie, who won popularity among parents and prominent business people, primarily by presenting the schools as an institution that could improve and flourish only with the aid of families, corporations and the rest of government.
A black-tie dinner at the Washington Hilton Wednesday night to pay tribute to McKenzie drew about 600 people, including Mayor Barry, several members of the D.C. Council and top names in the local business community.
"People looked to Floretta for guidance," Hall said, "but if you have a strong board president, you can continue to make progress."
The board -- and Jenkins -- will find out soon enough. The council hearings on school spending are scheduled for this week and next. And the superintendent search committee expects to have a preliminary list of finalists ready by week's end.