Mayor Anthony A. Williams and three other top District officials have gone to Southern California on what Williams described as a mission to persuade former Long Beach school superintendent Carl A. Cohn to lead the D.C. school system.
Williams said yesterday that Cohn is now the top choice of a panel of seven city and school officials that will recommend a candidate for D.C. superintendent to the school board, which has the final say.
"He has a proven track record of taking a lousy system and turning it around," Williams said in an interview before leaving on the trip.
The other officials traveling to California are D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Williams and the other three officials serve on the panel considering superintendent candidates, known as the D.C. education collaborative.
The group plans to meet with Cohn today and may also talk to people who have worked with him.
Williams described the visit as a "recruiting trip," saying he and the others aim to persuade Cohn to come to the District. Asked whether he is prepared to negotiate salary and other details, Williams said he hopes that "recruiting will lead to negotiating."
The mayor said he plans to tell Cohn: " 'We hear you do a wonderful job. Tell me what you need and we'll try to get it for you.' That's my negotiating strategy."
In a brief interview yesterday, Cohn confirmed that he will meet with the D.C. leaders.
"I don't know what they're going to be offering in terms of a solution to the governance problem," Cohn said, referring to an ongoing debate among D.C. officials over possible changes in the school governance structure.
Williams has been trying to get the council to pass legislation that would give the mayor the authority to hire and fire the superintendent, taking power from the school board, which now consists of five elected members and four mayoral appointees.
Last month, Cohn said he was concerned about leading the District's 64,200-student system with the issue of school oversight unresolved. He said he was worried he would not be able to attract top employees and follow through on reforms unless the same oversight structure remained in place for at least four to six years. A council plan that the mayor recently vetoed would have kept the current structure in place through 2006 and then made the school board an all-elected body. Cohn said he probably would not accept the job under that plan.
The education collaborative is considering two other candidates: Stephen C. Jones, the superintendent in Syracuse, N.Y., and Candy Lee, a former airline executive who also has run a company that provides educational materials.
The panel had a first round of interviews with the candidates in May and recently had Lee return for a follow-up discussion. Jones, who has expressed concern about the governance issue and said he was not interested in the D.C. job, has not returned for another interview, officials said.
Chavous, chairman of the council's education committee, said Cohn was "clearly someone we hold in high regard." He said he hoped the trip to Long Beach would show Cohn that city officials, often at odds over school matters, are united in finding a superintendent.
"It sends a real strong message that we all are on the same page in many ways," he said.
Chavous said he hoped to have the oversight issue resolved within two weeks. He said that he plans to introduce a measure to extend the current hybrid board by four years and that he believes he has enough support on the 13-member council for passage.
Specialists in superintendent searches said search panels occasionally make site visits. But the visit to Long Beach is unusual because it includes the District's top leaders, they said.
Cohn, 58, took over as superintendent in Long Beach in 1992 and attracted national attention when he required students from kindergarten through eighth grade to wear a uniform. He also put in place same-sex classes, new reading requirements for third-graders and an additional year of instruction for failing eighth-graders.
At the time Cohn took over, Long Beach school enrollment was 76,000, and it has since grown to 97,000. Cohn left that job in 2002 and now is a school consultant and a professor at the University of Southern California.
Williams's first choice to run D.C. schools was Rudolph F. Crew, the former chancellor of New York City schools, but Crew last month accepted the school superintendent's job in Miami-Dade County.
Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he thought Cohn would be a better fit for the District than Crew.
He said Cohn "is more self-effacing" and "a lower-keyed personality" than Crew and as a result would probably get along better with local and national officials.
"Rudy, he would have been a story a day," Houston said.
He said Cohn will "be able to stand up to the school board adequately but do it in a nice way. . . . He's got sort of a strong, silent quality."
Houston called the D.C. school system "probably the toughest district in the country" for a superintendent.
"Anybody that takes it has their work cut out for them," he said. "But I think he's got the tools."
Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.