Savior for DC Schools?
December 2, 1996
A conversation with retired Army General Julius W. Becton about his newest assignment, restoring order to the District of Columbia's troubled school system. Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the story.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: General Becton's marching orders come from the D.C. Financial Control Board, a five-person, unpaid citizen body created by Congress last year when the district was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The board, appointed by the President, was charged with reforming the D.C. government and given broad legislative and management powers to do it. On November 15th, the D.C. Financial Control Board declared a state of emergency in the city's schools. They replaced Superintendent Franklin Smith, whom they had just fired, with Retired General Julius Becton. They also stripped the elected school board of much of its power and replaced it with an unpaid, nine-member board of trustees. General Becton and the new trustees are charged with carrying out with school reforms into the year 2000. They will face a system plagued with a dizzying range of problems--drugs, guns and violence, lagging test scores, decaying school buildings with broken toilets and leaky roofs, and hefty spending on administrators. Three days before the leadership shake-up, the Control Board issued a blistering report, blaming Smith and the school board for failing to provide the approximately 80,000 students in the school system with a decent education. The study concluded that the longer students remain in D.C. schools, the less likely they are to succeed educationally.
SPOKESMAN: I think that it's very important that we each do what we're required and expected to do.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The district school's new chief executive, General Becton, is 70 years old and a veteran of three wars. This is the third time in eleven years he's been called to restore stability and accountability to a public institution. In the 1980's, he was director of the then scandal-prone Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the early 90's, he served as president of the fiscally-troubled Prairie View A&M University in Texas, a 118-year-old historically black college that was Becton's alma mater. Many of its problems mirrored those of the district's school systems. Within months of his arrival at Prairie View, Becton had engineered a fiscal turnaround.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: General Becton, thank you for joining us.
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON (Ret.), CEO, Washington, D.C. Schools: Thank you very much. Delighted to be here.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why did you take on the job of reforming what many are calling a failure--failed system?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Well, you must understand, I was retired, very happy, at home, and got contacted by two members of the Control Board, who asked me if I would come down and talk with them. No one told me what the subject was. I went down the next day, talked with them, and after about 20 minutes, I realized I was being invited to become actively involved in the school situation, the district. After hearing the same type thing that had been read in the study, I felt that--and talked to a lot of my friends and family members, I felt that I might be able to help. I had opportunities to do things that my predecessors did not have. I will be able to bring my own team in and use a management approach, and as my son said, you can turn the job down, but you don't have any grandchildren in the system now, but how would you feel five years from now if you had someone in the system and you had turned it down, you had a chance to do something about it, and didn't do it, no pressure, just a mild, little dig.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mentioned management. Tell me what it is you think you bring to a situation like this. Does being a general have anything to do with it?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Not really. It helped because I've been exposed to some things that maybe other people have not, but I think that through many years of trying some things, not trying some things, have a philosophy that works for me for the last 25 years--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is it?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Oh, there are some 12 points, now 13. They used to be, be professional, integrity is not negotiable, loyalty's a two-way street, and so forth. But now my number one is children first. And I raised the question no matter what we're doing, if we measured against that idea of children first, and if it works, fine, if it doesn't work, maybe we shouldn't be doing it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. You say children first, but I mentioned the institutions you've saved or rescued in the past. I mean, do you bring to it the same philosophy that you took to the emergency management program that was scandal-ridden? I mean, do you bring the same approach to a school system, to education?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: I think so, because take the third point now. Integrity is not negotiable. Integrity is integrity is integrity. I demand that people live by their word. Their word is their bond. And I'm going to be the same way with them as they are going to be with me. I expect loyalty's a two-way street. I expect our youngsters to have a sense of loyalty projected to them by their teachers, not just a teacher projecting loyalty to their principal or principal to the superintendent. But we've got to project loyalty down so that youngsters understand what role models are and what is expected of them and the way they should go. I believe they'll work--other things. Disagreement is not disrespect. I don't want a bunch of "yes" people around me. I don't want people telling me what they think I want to hear. I want the people to tell me what they really believe, and then we can start negotiating with people. We can start understanding people. Another point--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mentioned--
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: --mistakes--it's been difficult for some of us old-timers, but we make mistakes on occasion, and I'm concerned about that so that we can establish that we are making mistakes, be sensitive to and don't accept the idea of being abuse and misuse of our people. That covers many things. It covers the idea of the off-color joke, the sexual harassment bit, and the racial digs. If we're doing something that causes someone to be uncomfortable, we should stop doing it. And, of course, I end up with two very important things: maintain your sense of humor and keep things in perspective. I told a group of teachers this afternoon that cloud over our head's going to go away someplace. Now, we are suffering a little bit, but we have some good things happening to the system. I just went tonight--at the recognition of the outstanding principals in the area, and we had a principal there very proud of what he had been doing. Earlier, I had talked with teachers. They felt good about what they could do, but they wanted some things changed, and we can make those changes happen.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When you approach a problem or a challenge that has so many different dimensions--we alluded to some of them in the set-up piece--how do you know where to start with? What guides you to where to begin?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Well, we brought in a team of auditors. They started on my first day, the 15th, and I gave them nine areas we want to have a detailed assessment of, evaluation--procurement, personnel, security, facilities, office of the superintendent, public relations, communications, special education, transportation, food service. Those are the kinds of things--and we did an in-depth survey for five days. Now, that brought it up to date from when the study that was released earlier--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you're defining the problem.
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: We're defining the problem. Now we're in a phase of merging all of those things into priorities from one to the last one, because we can't do them all at one time. It took us a long time to get where we are, and we're going to have to start chipping away at trying to recover.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: One of the things you wrote about recently was your approach to violence in the schools, which isn't just the D.C. problem, but it's played in schools all over the country. Where does that come from?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: I am--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is it exactly?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Well, I'm convinced that until you can get violence away from the schoolhouse, you're not going to have effective teaching, you're not going to have effective money on the parts of the students. We should not have third-graders coming into class with a weapon to protect him or herself. We have to do something so that the student can feel free and comfortable that they can learn, and we'll do anything we can to make sure we eliminate the violence from the schoolhouse. I met with a deputy chief of police yesterday, or rather on Friday, and we'll be doing a lot more to deal with the subject of violence, getting support that we need.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You also mentioned expectations. What is that about?
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Well, if you raise expectations and can't make ‘em happen, I think it does damage to the youngsters. I do believe, however, that we can place a mark on the wall for a youngster to understand that they can reach that and build on that success to the next step, to the next step. I don't think we should have false expectations, but I certainly think we should have the expectation of having a clean facility. I was in a--I was in a restroom today, and I saw graffiti all over the place, and I asked the question, why do we tolerate that? Why don't we clean it up?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And I hope the answer was--
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Well, they gave me a blank look, but they got the message.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, General Becton, thank you for joining us.
LT. GENERAL JULIUS BECTON: Thank you for the invitation.