Originally created 03/11/01

Schrenko eyes top state post



ATLANTA - There is no easy way to get from Valdosta to Columbia County, especially at midnight or 2 a.m. This is something Linda Schrenko knows to be true, because she traveled back roads and politicked along them in her journey from an unknown elementary school teacher to a well-known state superintendent of schools.

Seven years later, Mrs. Schrenko is considering a return to those rural routes, wondering whether the path that helped her become the first female - and the first Republican - state school superintendent can help lead her to the Governor's Mansion.

"It's something I'm thinking about," Mrs. Schrenko said during a recent interview in her Atlanta offices.

She pulled the upset in 1994 not with money - she had only $40,000 with which to run a statewide campaign - but with a car and a compass.

"We'd get in the car and leave at five o'clock in the morning and eat barbecue in north Georgia, middle Georgia and south Georgia and wind up the day driving back home," Mrs. Schrenko said. "Not only were we confronted with these back roads in south Georgia, but occasionally we'd come across a road that had just been washed away and we'd have to turn around and backtrack and go another way, and very often we were so lost that we'd just look at the compass and say we know we need to go east or we need to go northeast, so whatever road takes us northeast, that's the road we're going on, and somehow we found our way through the towns and villages of Georgia."

Mrs. Schrenko knows she'll have to travel those roads again if she wants to unseat Roy Barnes in 2002. She still has the compass if she needs it.

Should she decide to run, Mrs. Schrenko has some advantages, including a recent Republican party poll that showed 71 percent of Georgia residents know who she is.

State Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay said she has other advantages.

"She's gone toe to toe with the governor and survived. He's isolated her politically, he's dismembered her legislatively, and she's still a powerful politician," Mr. Clay said. "Plus, she's won two consecutive statewide elections."

The governor's office declined all comment on Mrs. Schrenko's political aspirations.

Mr. Clay said a disadvantage for Mrs. Schrenko could be an inability to raise money for her campaign, "But she's always proven that you should never underestimate her."

He said the key will be her ability to show expertise in areas other than education reform.

State Sen. Joey Brush (R-Appling) said Mrs. Schrenko's decision last year to actively campaign against anyone who supported the governor's education reform bill, including Republicans, has cost her some allies within her party.

Some GOP members remain angry with her support of newcomer Sue Burmeister and the campaign against incumbent Robin Williams in last year's Republican primary race for House District 114.

"That may come back to hurt her," Mr. Brush said.

There are expected to be a number of Republicans vying for the state's top spot. Bill Byrne, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, declared his candidacy for the Republican Party nomination last week. As many as six others from across the state are expected to join him in the coming months.

Then there's the issue of redistricting. If the state legislature redraws the congressional seats in such a way as to put two U.S. representatives in the same district - Republicans Charlie Norwood and John Linder in Districts 10 and 11, for example - then one might run for re-election while the other runs for governor.

"If that happens, Linda, Bill Byrne, whoever, they'll all be blown out of the water," Mr. Clay said.

Mrs. Schrenko said she is well aware of the work it would take to get out of the primary then pull an upset of a popular, incumbent Democrat.

"I think I could get out of the primary," she said. "My name recognition is at 71 percent ... I think I start with a tremendous advantage."

Mrs. Schrenko says she expects the naysayers to tell her, "Little lady, you can't win. First, you're a woman. Second, you're a Republican."

But those barbs didn't stop her in 1994.

If she had believed those people back then, when she first ran for the state office with no previous political experience and little money, she never would've made it this far.

"I'll tell you the first person who ever encouraged me was a guy named Newt Gingrich," she said. "I met Newt roaming around a political barbecue for (former state attorney general) Mike Bowers, and I said, `Newt, I want to be state school superintendent' and instead of treating me like everybody else and saying `You can't do it,' he said `Let me tell you how to go about doing this' and `Here's what I think you should do."'

So Mrs. Schrenko followed his advice: She held town hall meetings and she shook hands and she kissed babies and she drove all across Georgia to places like Albany and Bainbridge and Valdosta.

"We put 60,000 miles on my car that first year," she said.

The funny thing is that she never had any intention of being a politician.

It was a near-death experience, a car accident in September 1988, that changed her mind.

She was driving home in her Honda CRX on Gavin Road, less than a mile from her house, when an animal darted out in front of her car.

Mrs. Schrenko, a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, swerved, plunging off the side of the road, striking a dirt embankment and flipping her car nose to tail three times.

She was not wearing her seat belt and was thrown from the car.

Bleeding and injured - she chipped a vertebra in her lower back - Mrs. Schrenko stumbled to a house about a half-mile from the accident scene.

"She told me when she woke up in the hospital, she realized she was still here and she decided she must be here for a reason," said her husband, Frank Schrenko.

Mrs. Schrenko said a sheriff told her she should've died in the accident.

"They were real surprised that I lived through it, and I really felt like I had a purpose for being here and that purpose was that if I saw a wrong that needed to be righted, I needed to do something about it," she said.

The wrong Mrs. Schrenko needed to right, in her mind, was the condition of Georgia's public education system.

"I saw children that came from abusive homes, and it seemed to me that, instead of focusing on those children, more and more of the money was being diverted away from the classroom ... It was more of a frustration of not being able to make a big enough change, to recenter education on children."

She believed she needed to get that message of recentering education on children out to the people of Georgia, and she decided the way to do that was to run for state superintendent of schools.

It wasn't comfortable then and it's not comfortable now for Mrs. Schrenko to be involved in the political side of legislative battles or campaign races.

She said she tends to think of politicians as sleazy. "You've got to say to yourself every day, `I'm not going to become one of them, no matter what."'

As superintendent, Mrs. Schrenko has focused on improving elementary school reading programs, particularly at the third-grade level. In 1996, her office surveyed 17-year-olds who had dropped out of high school, asking them what the school system could have done that would have made them stay.

Many said that they wouldn't have fallen behind if they had learned how to read before they finished third grade, Mrs. Schrenko said. Mrs. Schrenko used that survey to help persuade then-Gov. Zell Miller to agree to spend $13 million on elementary school reading programs.

Now Mr. Barnes is poised to add $7 million to those programs, and President Bush's federal reading plan would add $5 million more.

Since Mrs. Schrenko took office, SAT scores have improved 26 points, from a 949 statewide average to 975. ITBS math scores are up to 58 points from 55, and language scores are up to 62 points from 58.

She implemented a safety hot line that students, parents or teachers can call, and she became an advocate for teachers.

"She gave them a voice they had not had before," said Ralph Noble, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

But Mr. Noble said Mrs. Schrenko's arrival at the state office was not as smooth as it could or should have been.

"It took her a long time to get an understanding of how a state department should be run due to her lack of a management background," said Mr. Noble, who has served as secretary-treasurer, vice president and president of the GAE during Mrs. Schrenko's tenure in Atlanta.

Mr. Noble said Mrs. Schrenko's office seems to be in a constant state of flux, with employees coming and going. "It's tense, but I'm not sure that's all her fault," he said, referring to her much-publicized personality clash with state school board Chairman Otis Brumby.

Mrs. Schrenko acknowledged these problems, admitting that running a state office was unlike anything she'd done before. She blamed staffing and communication problems on an unhappy staff she inherited.

"They were all hired by (former schools Superintendent) Werner Rogers, and they despised me," she said. It took awhile, Mrs. Schrenko said, but eventually she pared down the staff, hiring some of her own people and keeping some people from the previous administration "who got to know me and had grown to like me."

Mr. Nobles said a run for governor by Mrs. Schrenko would be "very interesting," but believes she has a big obstacle to surmount.

"It's going to be difficult for her to demonstrate she has the expertise that a governor would need," he said.

A Schrenko gubernatorial platform would likely center around public education. Mrs. Schrenko said she knows many people don't support Mr. Barnes' education reform bill. She says she knows people want a say in their government, that they don't like politicians making changes to their schools or to the flags flying above them without first getting input from the people they represent.

"They don't want things railroaded through," she said.Mrs. Schrenko said she was not opposed to changing the flag, but was opposed to the process under which the flag was changed.

"Whether we changed the flag or not, we should've gone out and given the people a chance to talk about it, to look at different designs, to make suggestions, and to educate them on what a boycott would've done to Georgia.

"This is (the people's) state too; it's not ours."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.