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Go To The Head Of The Class

As New York City's interim schools chancellor, Citigroup's Harold Levy is getting results

Go To The Head Of The Class

As New York City's interim schools chancellor, Citigroup's Harold Levy is getting results

It's Mar. 16, and Citigroup Inc. Director of Global Compliance Harold O. Levy fields questions before a packed audience of business leaders in midtown Manhattan. But these aren't queries about mergers or quarterly results. Instead, Levy is being asked about teacher training and recruitment and about his ideas for improving New York City's troubled public schools.

Once again, the topic comes up that has dogged him since he was named New York's interim schools chancellor in January over the vehement objection of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani: Should a business leader run the nation's largest school system? And does he really want the job? Levy, 47, hedges, as he has done since a four-to-three school board vote made him the first non-educator ever to hold the post. "I've got a system to run," he insists.

If Levy isn't making his intentions clear, he's working furiously to shake things up. His day starts shortly after dawn, when he rides a sluggish elevator up the crumbling Board of Education headquarters and scans the garbage bins to see if they have been emptied. In his first week, Levy declared the place "an absolute pigsty" and threatened to fire the janitor. Since then, cleaning house has become a metaphor for his war on bureaucratic incompetence in a system of 1.1 million children, 84% of them minorities, where almost 1 in 3 is in danger of failing.

Levy's insistence that the schools have "customers, like any other organization," is a dose of culture shock in a system that has churned through five chancellors in 11 years. But Levy is no stranger to institutional turmoil. During the 1998 merger of Citicorp and Travelers, he emerged as a calm negotiator who distinguished himself "by his unique abilities to get along with anyone," says Citigroup General Counsel Charles O. Prince III.

Levy's take-charge approach and passion for urban education--he headed a 1995 commission that slammed the city's shoddy school conditions--is already impressing business and education leaders. Editorials in three New York papers called on the board to suspend its search for a new leader and keep Levy in the $245,000 position. But he is still under attack from the mayor, who on Mar. 16 ridiculed as gimmicky an idea that Levy and the powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT) came up with to help recruit 17,000 summer-school teachers. They wanted to promise those whose students perform well a plane ticket to anywhere in the continental U.S. at summer's end. "We're talking about a traditional business kind of perk," says Levy, who needs summer-school instructors to help some 320,000 students who aren't meeting state standards.

Undaunted, Levy says he'll try something else. "The summer program is a huge, huge challenge," says Board of Ed President William Thompson. Indeed, Levy's predecessor, Rudy Crew, was ousted in part because he bungled last year's summer-school effort. Thompson says he's already seeing benefits from putting a business leader in charge. "I like the accountability he has brought."

SPRAWLING. At Citigroup, from which Levy took a six-month leave of absence, he's responsible for making sure the company complies with regulations in 140 countries. While his school portfolio is at least as sprawling, Levy has moved quickly to establish himself as a demanding boss. Appalled at the board's outdated computer-messaging system, Levy demanded the ability to e-mail to more than 1,000 city principals. Told it would take six months, Levy insisted that the board speed up plans to install new software. Now, his office is electronically linked to every school.

Levy is the first to admit how tough his job is. Some problems--lagging test scores, a looming teacher shortage, and massive overcrowding--lend themselves to the kind of action plans some execs like Levy crave. Others, like the public attacks from Giuliani, are thornier. The mayor, New York's likely Republican U.S. Senate candidate, wanted a business leader to run the schools. But he didn't want Levy, a Democrat who wants higher teacher pay and is the favorite of the UFT, which is backing Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate bid against the mayor.

Outside the system, Levy is establishing a corporate advisory group and turning for advice to everyone from real estate developers to marketing specialists. "I'm trying to find the right people in the business community to give me their best thoughts," he says.

Levy was sadly prescient on the 1995 commission, which called for major building-repair spending to prevent injuries: A Brooklyn girl died in 1998 when a brick from her school building fell and hit her. Levy, a graduate of the city's public schools--although his kids are in private ones--has served since 1997 on the New York State Board of Regents, which sets education policy. But because he lacks the necessary teaching credentials, he had to seek a waiver from the state education commissioner.

Indeed, some Education Dept. staffers fear that education issues will be lost in Levy's emphasis on management. But they acknowledge his effectiveness thus far. One small sign: The janitor at board headquarters is taking the house-cleaning message seriously. These days, there's no trash in sight.