The legacies of Linda

by | November 26, 2004 12:00 am

Bill

The election of Linda Schrenko as state school superintendent in 1994 appeared to be a dream come true.

She had shattered the glass ceiling. At last, Georgians had chosen a woman for a statewide constitutional office.

Conservative Republicans could rightly claim that one of their own had been elevated to a most important post. She seemed to be a “moral values” candidate in the truest sense.

Career educators were elated that a person with an impressive background as a teacher, principal and school activist stood at the helm of Georgia’s education establishment.

Schrenko promised an end to mediocrity and a substantial increase in student test scores. She vowed to wipe out the good-old-boy relationships that ruled Georgia education. She promised a new day for Georgia schools.

A new day indeed. Schrenko’s tenure was an eight-year nightmare. Moral values went out the window. Absenteeism and incompetence permeated the superintendent’s office. Schrenko gave Georgians an invaluable lesson in how not to run a government agency. That may be her most lasting legacy.

Shortly after the Nov. 2 election, more than two years after she was defeated for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, a federal grand jury indicted Schrenko on charges of stealing more than $600,000 in federal funds to repay a campaign loan (secured by her daughter’s dental practice) and to pay for a facelift. Schrenko’s attorney says she is innocent. A jury will likely decide.

The $600,000-plus indictment seems almost a footnote to Schrenko’s turbulent career as superintendent. The amount of the alleged fraud is piddling compared to the grander sums that passed through her office.

Let’s review:

— While Schrenko participated in headline-making controversies with governors and state boards of education, more than $50 billion in state and federal funds poured through her offices. Of that amount, huge sums seem to have gone astray.

— A proposed statewide system to track students and keep tabs on education spending consumed an estimated $70 million in taxpayers’ funds before it fizzled. After years of renewed promises and false starts, only one school system uses a small part of the state information network. Meanwhile, some Metro Atlanta school boards spent millions installing their own systems after Schrenko’s Education Department fell on its technological face.

— Student testing was another area in which the Department of Education under Schrenko’s tenure just couldn’t seem to get it right. Millions (no one seems to know the precise amount) were forked over to testing companies that failed repeatedly to deliver tests and useful test results on the promised schedules. The testing fiasco resulted in a loss of at least two years of data.

— Schrenko’s announced grand attempt to revise and modernize Georgia’s standard curriculum resulted in another debacle. A curriculum committee, handpicked by Schrenko, spent years rewriting Georgia’s standard study menu, which was to include a special “literature course” on the Bible. A panel of outside, independent evaluators stamped the new curriculum “grossly inadequate.” The disapproval required Schrenko’s successor to start from scratch to develop a more rigorous program to meet accreditation standards. The amount of money wasted on the Schrenko curriculum may never be known. What is known: Curriculum improvement in Georgia was delayed by about seven years.

These mammoth blunders exploded against a backdrop of constant bickering with state board of education members as well as concerned citizens’ groups. Gov. Zell Miller picked wealthy developer J. T. Williams as state board chairman to carry out Miller’s education policies. When Williams and Schrenko collided head on, Miller fired his own appointed chairman and selected now-Sen.-elect Johnny Isakson to take over the board and smooth matters over.

Isakson accomplished his mission. Schrenko vs. the Board dropped off the public fight card. Then Roy Barnes became governor and appointed Marietta Daily Journal publisher Otis Brumby to chair the board to try to impose some control over the Education Department. When Brumby insisted repeatedly on more complete budget figures, a Schrenko ally in the Legislature referred to the chairman as “a madman.”

Brumby was succeeded by former state PTA president Cathy Henson, who blew the whistle on Schrenko and called in the feds.

Remarkably, in her last days as superintendent, Schrenko formed a close alliance with the teachers’ unions. Both Schrenko and the unionists opposed much of Gov. Barnes’ education reform, especially the part relating to accountability. Now we may begin to know why Schrenko hated so much oversight. We’re still not sure about the teachers unions’ motives.

P.S.: The Schrenko episode serves as a compelling argument for replacing the elective superintendent’s post with an appointive one. Georgia’s current system makes no sense. If left intact, it can only lead to additional scandals. Consider this: The governor appoints an education board to manage a superintendent elected statewide. Such an arrangement in the corporate world would be the equivalent of having outside stockholders hire a CEO who is not directly answerable to the board of directors — a setup that would be laughable to say the least.—

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net

Shipp

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