Originally created 11/28/02

Official reviews 8-year tenure



ATLANTA - She has a new Mustang convertible.

She's packing her office, and she's leaving behind eight years of controversy as her term as state school superintendent ends.

Linda Schrenko says the controversy is her legacy.

"The only thing that everyone is going to remember about me is that I brought education to the forefront of the news and kept it there," she said. "For eight years, everything that we did in education made the news."

As proof, consider that nearly every candidate this fall used education as a campaign theme, she noted.

Mrs. Schrenko seemed to be in the swirl of controversy from the moment she was elected eight years ago, upsetting Democratic incumbent Werner Rodgers to become the first female Republican in that post or any other statewide office.

Despite low funds, her re-election campaign was also successful four years later. But her decision to retire from the superintendent's office and run for governor stalled when she lost a three-way race last summer for the GOP nomination to Sonny Perdue, whom she endorsed in his upset of Democrat Roy Barnes.

Even her waning days in the superintendent's post have been controversial after a published report in which her staff said she was seldom at her desk in recent months.

Sitting in her office Tuesday amid packed boxes, awaiting the moving van, Mrs. Schrenko said she's brushing off the criticism, on her family's advice.

If the staff didn't see her, it was because she took a vacation, worked in other offices at the Department of Education, and was visiting schools around the state. Besides, she added, everything in the department is being taken care of.

All the controversy isn't her fault, according to the superintendent.

Democrats in the General Assembly refused to consider her legislation.

"With that in mind, I pretty much gave up," she said.

One thing worked.

She had some success when she persuaded senior Democrats such as then-Sen. Paul Broun and Rep. Louis McBee, both of Athens, to introduce her proposals as their own.

To illustrate the partisanship, she said House Speaker Tom Murphy ordered the doorkeepers to refuse her entry with the other statewide officials when then-Gov. Zell Miller gave his first budget address.

Mr. Miller came to her rescue, not only getting her a seat for future addresses, but also replacing the school board with people she could work with.

"That first board was not nice, and they didn't want to see me succeed, but they were not malicious," she said.

After Mr. Barnes succeeded Mr. Miller, she had to work with appointees from a new governor.

"The current board is just purely determined," she said. "They are so political, they are determined to see me, the Republican superintendent, fail at all costs - at all costs."

After many heated board meetings, Mrs. Schrenko said less and less during the sessions. Then, she finally stopped going to them, attending only three of 18 meetings this year.

Board Chairwoman Cathy Henson blamed the superintendent for the distrust, saying Mrs. Schrenko was the partisan one.

"Once (Mr. Barnes' education reform bill) passed, the superintendent made a strategic political decision," said Ms. Henson, a Barnes appointee. "She would oppose (it) for political reasons."

Mrs. Schrenko objected to the bill's creation of several educational agencies that took power and funding from the department she heads.

When teachers objected to other parts of the bill, she had a natural support network for when she launched her gubernatorial campaign.

If only Democrats had not stood in her way, Mrs. Schrenko believes she would have accomplished much: raised SAT scores, instituted accountability measures sooner, and guaranteed that 95 percent of state allocations to education was spent on helping students and not paying administrators.

She would have also calculated a cost-benefit factor for every high school course so that those not preparing students to score a certain level on standardized tests would be deemed too expensive to fund.

When she came to office, she brought 20 pages of initiatives to launch.

Just one of them made her list of lasting successes: Reading First, an intensive program geared to improve students' performance in every subject by concentrating on reading.

In retirement, Mrs. Schrenko plans to write a book on her experiences, launch a Web site for teachers on the state school board's politics, and maybe even run again for office.

She could consider a legislative district if hers became vacant or perhaps a stab at Congress if U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood runs for the U.S. Senate should Mr. Miller retire in two years.

"Never say never," Mrs. Schrenko said.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.

COMING FRIDAY

Retiring School Superintendent Linda Schrenko sits down for a question-and-answer session about her eight years in office.