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A Turnaround Ace For New Orleans

Its schools were a mess before Katrina. Now they may be Bill Roberti's toughest job yet

Just one look at Bill Roberti's mug tells you all you need to know. When it comes to business, he's brusque and focused, not much for small talk or a joke. Even as he folds his tree trunk of a body into the elementary school desk that has become his makeshift office space, he oozes steely resolve, honed through a dual career as a U.S. Army Reserve colonel and corporate turnaround artist. He doesn't waste words, and when he does speak, he booms. If the commanding 59-year-old is more indelicate than ever these days, it's because he's knee-deep in the most daunting challenge of his professional life: reconstituting the entire New Orleans public school system.

Roberti is a managing director at Alvarez & Marsal LLC, the New York turnaround consultant renowned for whipping Timex, Interstate Bakeries (LBCIQ ), and the post-Richard Scrushy HealthSouth (HLSH ) into shape. In June, 2005, the firm was awarded a modest contract to help straighten out the crooked finances of the New Orleans system's 117 schools and its administration. After Hurricane Katrina the job has ballooned into something unimaginably more important. Even before Katrina flooded 80% of the city and emptied it of almost all of its residents, the New Orleans public school system was the worst of all major U.S. cities and faced intractable corruption, infighting, and racial tension. No one knows the odds against the schools better than Roberti, who did similar financial work at A&M for the St. Louis school system. Largely because of him and his staff, 10,165 students are back in the 20 public schools that are up and running.