Former Long Beach superintendent Carl A. Cohn told a delegation of District leaders Wednesday that he is very interested in the job of D.C. schools chief, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other officials said Cohn could be appointed to the post as early as next week.
Williams (D) also said he is dropping his eight-month-old campaign to gain direct control of the city's school system because the effort was making Cohn reluctant to come to Washington. Williams and D.C. Council members said they now have agreed, at Cohn's request, to leave the current school oversight structure in place for at least four more years.
The mayor took the unusual step of flying 2,700 miles to this California port to woo Cohn, whose 10-year record in the 97,000-student school district has been widely praised. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz also came on the recruiting trip.
Cohn and the four D.C. leaders sat around a boardroom table at the Hilton Long Beach hotel after a 90-minute midday meeting and said that the only things left to do were for District officials to make the changes requested by Cohn and for Cohn to discuss the job with his family.
Cohn, 58, who had earlier expressed concern about the lack of clear authority held by the D.C. superintendent, said the meeting with the D.C. delegation and a breakfast with Williams earlier in the day made it much more likely he would take the job. "I am about 75 percent of the way there," he said.
He said he will be discussing the D.C. position in the next few days with his wife and two children.
The four visiting District officials, who serve on a seven-member panel called the D.C. education collaborative that will recommend a superintendent candidate to the school board, said they were prepared to forward Cohn's name early next week, in time for the board to vote on Cohn at its regular meeting Wednesday.
Williams announced in September that he would seek the authority to hire and fire the superintendent, a power now held by the school board. The council has since rejected the mayor's proposal, and Williams has vetoed a school oversight plan approved by the council.
Cohn, one of four finalists for superintendent, had expressed concern about the dispute. He said he was worried he would not be able to attract top staff and follow through on reforms unless the same governance structure remained in place for at least four years.
Williams said Wednesday that he agreed to drop his plan for mayoral control after Cohn told him at their breakfast that he would not take the job if he was not clearly in charge.
The mayor said: "When I came out here, my attitude was, I'm going to sit down with Carl and I'm going to say, 'Carl, what do you think would be the best structure that would create an environment of success for you?' . . . If he in his considered experience and judgment says he needs these things, I'm going to back him."
Chavous said of Cohn, "This is our guy, and we feel we are making significant progress in getting the best instruction leader in the country."
Reading scores for elementary school students improved significantly during Cohn's leadership in Long Beach, and his decision to require uniforms for students in kindergarten through eighth grade won him national attention.
After meeting with the D.C. leaders, Cohn said that in the District, "teaching kids to read early has to be the single most important initiative." But he also talked about radically changing the relationship between the superintendent and the school board so that board meetings could become businesslike and short.
Cohn said if he took the superintendent's job, he would try to institute the same school board meeting system he had in Long Beach. That board, with only five members, usually backed him unanimously -- in part, he said, because he had periodic, 21/2-day public meetings in which board members discussed with him their vision for the schools' future but made no decisions. Votes on policy were left for regular business meetings that rarely lasted more than an hour, because the board had already had a chance to air its views, he said.
Cohn said he wanted to dispense with the practice, common in the District and other Washington area school districts, in which a superintendent spends days preparing for a five- or six-hour school board meeting and then has to spend more days trying to execute a number of decisions made by the board, many of them actions involving small administrative details.
Cafritz said the D.C. board "had already voted in February to forsake that kind of micromanagement" and would give Cohn the support he wanted.
The D.C. school board consists of five elected members and four mayoral appointees.
Cropp was calling council members from her hotel room Wednesday morning to win support for a bill that would leave the hybrid board in place for at least four more years, in response to Cohn's concerns. Chavous said the council probably would vote on the measure by early next week.
The delegation of D.C. officials also said they had agreed to Cohn's request to have the superintendent put in charge of the District's State Education Office. Cohn and Cafritz said this would allow Cohn to improve the way the District handles federal grants, federal special education rules and individual school restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Staff writer Justin Blum in Washington contributed to this report.