Originally created 08/12/02

Schools chief says 'clear difference' is called for



ROME, Ga. - It's a winner of a political sound bite - one that Linda Schrenko breaks out every time she gets a chance.

The definition of insanity, she says, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result.

The controversial state school superintendent wants Georgia Republicans to keep that in mind when they decide who will take on Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in November.

Mrs. Schrenko - who became the first woman elected to statewide office in Georgia when she shocked incumbent Werner Rogers in 1994 - says she has the best chance of any candidate of breaking up nearly 150 years of Democratic control in the state.

"You need a clear difference," she said. "It's always been rich, white males against rich, white males, and it has not worked.

"There's not enough of a difference between a rich, white, conservative Democrat and a rich, white, conservative Republican."

Mrs. Schrenko certainly has plenty of experience going toe-to-toe with Mr. Barnes. She has loudly and proudly been the governor's public foil during nearly three years of education reform.

But critics say her eight years of turmoil as the head of Georgia's schools don't exactly suggest she would be a good governor. They say she has staffed the state Department of Education with friends and political cronies, spent much of her office time campaigning and courted controversy even when cooperation was possible.

"She's known for fighting for her causes at the drop of a hat, but many times, she's the one who drops the hat," said former state Sen. Sonny Perdue, one of her opponents in the primary. "I have the ability to work with people - particularly people who disagree with me - not throw a spear in the ground on every issue and say, 'This is the way it's going to be."'

It's that reputation for controversy that keeps Mrs. Schrenko from blowing away the rest of the field, analysts say.

"Her position is not as strong as it might be in the sense that not all of those who recognize her see her positively," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. "There would be some who say, 'Yeah, I know who that is, but I'm going to vote for somebody other than her."'

The leadership of the state GOP appears to have essentially written off Mrs. Schren-ko early, backing Mr. Perdue in the primary over her and former Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne.

But polls taken about a month before the Aug. 20 primary show that her name recognition from two terms in the schools post still had her leading her two opponents and apparently headed for at least a runoff with Mr. Perdue.

"She's hard to assess because she is so unconventional," Dr. Bullock said.

Not surprisingly, classroom issues top Mrs. Schrenko's agenda, and that has opponents calling her a single-issue candidate. She counters that polls show that education is the No. 1 concern among Georgia voters and that it's sometimes hard for her to get her message out on anything else.

"I'd like to get away from talking only about education," Mrs. Schrenko said. "(But) by and large the reporters who interview me say, 'Education is No. 1. ... I've got to ask you about the No. 1 issue."'

Mrs. Schrenko's platform largely concerns fixing what she calls Mr. Barnes' flawed education reform. She says she would provide funds for putting teacher's aides back in elementary school classrooms. Many schools say the cost of smaller classes, required by Mr. Barnes' reforms, have made keeping assistants too expensive.

Mrs. Schrenko has her own proposal for smaller class sizes. It involves splitting up classes and rotating smaller groups of pupils in and out of specialty classes. She says it would save money Mr. Barnes' plan requires for new classrooms.

And she has a quick answer for why the plan hasn't seen the light of day.

"Because it's in the trash can," she said, adding that leaders in the Legislature wouldn't consider the idea. "I can't even get an open vote on the floor in the House or Senate on it, much less get it actually passed."

She has also focused on curbing pollution and traffic gridlock in the Atlanta area. One solution, she says, would be to move state offices out of the capital and to other cities throughout the state.

Moving cargo transports from Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport to regional airports in Savannah, Augusta, Columbus and other cities would cut down on pollution in Atlanta and provide jobs elsewhere, she said.

She has also floated several tax-cutting ideas, including a plan to replace local education spending with a statewide sales tax. Critics argued that the plan would be a disaster during a recession. But Mrs. Schrenko said that with a 3.5 cent tax, tourists and other visitors would pay about $1.6 billion of the $5 billion needed to cover local school costs.

Food, health care and education supplies would be exempt under her plan, and senior citizens wouldn't have to pay it.

A low-budget, low-key formula has worked in both of Mrs. Schrenko's elections for superintendent.

"What candidates do who have had some success is they essentially run the same campaign over and over," Dr. Bullock said. "She defeated a sitting school superintendent with virtually no money. Until it doesn't work for her, she may continue to use that game plan."