DPS finalist touts record

Mayoral aide Michael Bennet admits he has much to learn about the education field but points to his success in the corporate world.

By Susan Greene
Denver Post Staff Writer

Article Last Updated: 6/22/2005 07:00 PM

Some of Michael Bennet's closest friends have tried talking him out of his bid to run Denver schools.

After all, they've warned him, the long hours and bureaucratic entanglements would daunt any superintendent, let alone a guy with three young kids and hopes for elected office.

Bennet shrugs off their career advice like he has so often before.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's 40-year-old chief of staff wants to lead the city's 73,000-student district despite never having taught school nor, for that matter, spent much time in a city classroom. His own private schooling and the fact that he has been sending his oldest daughter to a private academy further the rap that he knows little about public education.

Bennet admits he has much to learn. But he is touting his record as a proven corporate turnaround expert and city manager whose leadership skills have won him backing from Denver's power brokers.

Bennet faces the toughest challenge yet in his nomadic yet meteoric career, arguing that if he's willing to bet on Denver Public Schools, the district should bet on him.

The oldest of three kids, Bennet was raised in Washington, D.C., among the nation's power elite.

His father, Douglas Bennet, is president of Wesleyan University. Bennet's brother, James, recently ran The New York Times' bureau in Jerusalem.

Bennet's own resume shows a pattern of nonlinear career moves, and exceptional success.

After graduating from Wesleyan, he worked as an aide to Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste before attending Yale Law School. He then rolled through four law jobs in less than four years, including a gig as a counsel to the Clinton Justice Department.

Upon deciding that practicing law bored him, he reckoned he ought to learn something about business. So, he took an entry-level position investing money for mogul Phil Anschutz even though he lacked such basic business skills as being able to read balance sheets. In six years, he climbed to the post of Anschutz Investment Co.'s managing director, grouping three bankrupt movie-theater companies into the largest theater chain in the world.

"In the world of investments, he became a rock star," said Tom Strickland, whose law firm worked on the deal.

Still, few in public life had heard of Bennet when, during Hickenlooper's campaign, he was the first to project a $50 million city budget shortfall. Soon, even mayoral opponent Don Mares, the city's chief accountant, upped his own, far lower estimate to what turned out to be Bennet's more accurate figure.

The millions Bennet earned with An schutz afforded him a home in Denver's Seventh Avenue Historic District and the luxury of accepting a far-lower-paying job as Hickenlooper's chief of staff.

"People of Michael's caliber, you don't often see them in local government or in school districts," Hickenlooper said.

Bennet since has balanced Denver's budget largely by reforming the decades-old way the city pays its workers. He also negotiated the complex gate-access deal between major airlines at Denver International Airport.

Bennet's successes at the city - and his lunches alone, reading nonfiction at a downtown food court - have earned him a reputation as "the smartest man in the room," said City Attorney Cole Finegan.

In his book, "Hardball," NBC's Chris Matthews credits Bennet's father for talking his way into a top job with the Senate Budget Committee by admitting he had no expertise in budgeting, and later becoming head of National Public Radio by acknowledging he lacked a broadcasting background. Matthews lauds Douglas Bennet as a master at what he calls "Hanging a lantern on your problem."

Following his dad's example, Bennet acknowledges his lack of experience as an educator, saying he would rely on careerists to guide him on the details of how, for instance, to raise district test scores and close the achievement gap between affluent and poor students. He touts his work in the take-no-prisoners world of corporate bankruptcy as proof that he could temper district infighting.

"For me, the work will be about implementation, not the latest nuances in pedagogical theory," said Bennet, who plans this fall to switch his kindergartner from the private Logan School to DPS's Bromwell Elementary.

Transforming Denver's 154 schools into the nation's first big-city success story, he says, requires a superintendent who gives "content" to the mantra that the district needs to "raise its expectations."

That means leading administrators, teachers, parents and community members in mapping out specific ways to lower truancy and dropout rates, while keeping all sides accountable for meeting those goals.

It also means coaching teachers and giving them better ways to track and improve students' performance.

And, he says, it means meeting every other week with principals, who would undergo training as instructional leaders, not only as administrators.

Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer - who now runs Los Angeles' massive school district - said a K-12 background is a plus, "but by no means necessary" for a big-city superintendent.

"If anyone can do it, (Bennet) can. He's, like, really fast at seeing solutions that get something out of it for all sides," added teachers union leader Brad Jupp.

Bennet's candidacy comes with Hickenlooper's support, and the unspoken promise that city government would work even more closely with DPS than under outgoing Superintendent Jerry Wartgow.

Bennet also brings the backing of political and business elite who are reluctant to push his appointment too forcefully for fear of seeming to anoint a successor to fellow white-guy business-darling Wartgow.

In a speech to commerce leaders last fall, Bennet surprised many by slamming the invasion of Iraq and chastising presidential candidates for failing to engage the nation in a factual debate about the war. In language far more impassioned than that of most seasoned politicians, he beseeched his audience to "keep accountable those of us in public office. And never forget that our true test is how well we provided for our posterity."

Many in the crowd expected Bennet's work for Hickenlooper would end with his own run for political office. So it came as a surprise that he instead is vying to serve at the pleasure of a divided school board in a job in which he ultimately may have little control over the reforms he seeks to make.

"If anything, it would end a political career before it starts," said Celeste, now president of Colorado College.

Bennet downplays his political ambitions as he promises the district five years of service.

"In the end," he said, "it's less about the office you hold than what you can accomplish."

For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

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