December 11, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez's decision last week to appoint himself to the school board - and his subsequent election as chairman - left jaws grazing ground throughout the city and the state.
It was, in many ways, a masterful maneuver, similar to tactics he has used before to control two city councils, keep a thumb on the Democratic Party and even put his imprint on a city audit agency that's supposed to be independent.
This time, he took his involvement a step further, going beyond planting friendly surrogates on city boards and agencies and inserting himself personally. In doing so, Perez is taking a risk: staking his reputation on turning around a school system that has proved stunningly impervious to substantive change.
It is, observers suggest, a move that's one part style and two parts substance. He is ambitious and stubborn, and likes control. As mayor he trusts, and consults, only a small corps of people.
But there's also something personal at work here. The mayor is a product of the city school system, and often uses his own story to illustrate the power of education. His opportunity to rise from street kid to college graduate at 36 to the city's first Latino mayor came through some lucky breaks and the guidance of a few attentive adults.
Perez has made higher education, and its accessibility to students from Hartford, an emphasis of his second term as mayor. But getting to college requires encouragement and adherence to a precisely carved path, and Perez wants to be the one wielding the pompoms and the scythe.
"Eddie is all about passion, all about justice," said Evan S. Dobelle, the former president of Trinity College, where Perez held positions in community relations. "He is very proud to come from where he came from to be mayor of Hartford. He knows that some people of power ... helped him get there.
"How many other Eddie Perezes are there in Hartford who people need to give a chance to?"
The mayor has staked his political career on big ideas. In his first term, he pledged to boost the city's dismal homeownership rate. This term, he has studied how to end chronic homelessness, insure the city's uninsured and make every student in Hartford believe he or she can attend college.
But getting everyone talking about issues such as education or homeownership is one thing - something Perez, a former community organizer, does well.
It's another thing to close the deal, to put in place a system that endures beyond his own involvement - and that is the key, say skeptics and supporters alike.
It is especially important when it comes to Hartford's school system, a 24,000-student labyrinth that has vexed many well-intentioned problem-solvers.
"It's personal leadership and pushing vs. building a team, and either can get in the way of the other if you're not careful," said Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan, who worked with Perez on the Learning Corridor project while both were affiliated with Trinity.
"There has to be a team in place that sustains [the work] on the day he's not in town, on the day he's not able to focus on this, or the day he's not going to be mayor," Sullivan said. "After you've intervened personally you have to intervene structurally, and that's the task."
Doing so, says state Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, an assistant principal at Hartford's Weaver High School, eventually will require some delegating.
"He is hands-on, but the question is does he have enough hands to run the education system and the city," McCrory said.
Perez said he has considered all that. He knows there are risks, both personal and political. But the only way to make lasting changes is to be emotionally invested, he said.
"Yeah, it is personal," Perez said. "I take it personally.
"There is no magic bullet, but there's lot of bright kids out there and we need to look for them. If the adults in my life weren't around me and did what they did, I probably wouldn't be in the mayor's office."
There was the teacher who pulled Perez out of a bilingual seventh-grade class at Barnard- Brown and put him in the advanced class. The counselor who encouraged him, before his senior year, to enroll in a program called Upward Bound, which offers tutoring and college preparation. And Dobelle, who gave Perez time to pursue a degree at Capital Community College and Trinity.
"Hartford gave me the opportunities I had in spite of the odds I had against me, which are the same odds that students have today," Perez said.
As he talked about education, the passion of an advocate eclipsed his usual collected mayoral demeanor.
"Rather than say, `We'll throw these kids away because they come from a poor household and they don't know what education is,' we need a high-expectation program where every kid is pushed and where academics are second to none and where kids are thinking of doing big things," he said.
Perez said he spent months looking for a school board chairman, reaching out to local corporations and the academic community. He was looking for someone who knew about budgeting and educating and who had good people skills, someone genial and high-profile enough to be the public face of the school system.
But, most important, the would-be chairman would need to have free time. Most of the candidates on Perez's list didn't have that.
"This is not a job that when you ask people to do it they say, `Yeah, thanks for thinking of me,'" said Thomas D. Ritter, former speaker of the state House and chairman of the now-defunct state-appointed board of trustees for the school district.
Children in Hartford continue to test dramatically lower than their suburban peers, and lower than most of their urban peers, too.
When it comes to fourth-grade reading, widely considered a key indicator for future academic success, only 15 percent in Hartford met the goal on the Connecticut Mastery Test last spring. In the city's three comprehensive high schools, about half of the students entering ninth grade in the city make it to graduation four years later.
"I looked for a chairman," Perez said. "And I couldn't find a suitable chairman."
Eventually, he found the ideal candidate in his kitchen, over coffee with his wife, Maria.
She suggested that he take the job.
Knowing that appointing himself would be controversial, Perez did the politically astute thing. He called on his critics. He spoke to former Councilman John B. Kennelly, whom he had forced off the council in the last term, and made a personal visit to the home of Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, a regular dissenter. He also placed a phone call to vacationing Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff, whose son was the lead plaintiff in a precedent-setting school desegregation lawsuit.
Since the appointment last week, the 48-year-old Perez has been accused of everything from megalomania to extreme micro-management to political ambition gone astray. But then, in a second breath, people also wonder: Can all those things really be driving Perez when the job itself is thankless?
The move is especially risky for someone thought to have higher ambitions. Putting himself in charge of the school system removes any buffer between Perez and the district's failings.
"That's why I like it," said Ritter, an occasional adviser to the mayor. "He's doing it for the right reasons."
Courant Staff Writer Rachel Gottlieb contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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