L.A. Mayor Has Key Role in Board Race

By Kerry A. White — April 07, 1999 6 min read

Calls for streamlined governance and a major overhaul of the sprawling machine that is the Los Angeles Unified School District have emerged as the central issue in an increasingly heated school board race here.

And the struggle for control of the nation’s second-largest district features a new and powerful player: Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

Four of the board’s seven seats are up for grabs in the April 13 election. Four candidates--three newcomers and one incumbent--have been endorsed and bankrolled by a fund-raising arm put together by Mr. Riordan. The Los Angeles mayor, a lawyer and businessman with a history of involvement and philanthropy in the local schools, has long expressed frustration over what he sees as the panel’s divisiveness and the slow progress for the district’s nearly 700,000 students.

“This [race] is the most important thing to happen since I’ve been mayor,” Mr. Riordan said in a recent interview at his downtown office. On it, he added, rests “the whole future of Los Angeles.”

Many of the 13 candidates running for the nonpartisan board seats, including the four incumbents, agree. And several have focused their campaigns in opposition to the mayor himself, portraying him as an outsider seeking greater control over the schools.

The 69-year-old Republican handily won a second term in 1997 based, in part, on a pledge to usher in “a revolution” in the public schools. And though he is impressed by mayoral takeovers of school systems in Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere, he laments that a similar power shift is not politically feasible in Los Angeles. The 780-square-mile district’s boundaries do not match the city’s, and Mr. Riordan is only one of nine mayors who represent municipalities within the school district.

But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to influence how the district, which has a $6.5 billion annual budget, operates.

“Our poor children are not learning, they’re not getting the skills they need to be part of the middle class,” the mayor argued. “The best way to go about reform here is through the school board. It’s imperfect, but it’s the only way to go.”

Schools ‘Failing Kids’

The mayor isn’t alone in singling out the school board as an impediment to reform.

“The way the LAUSD board conducts the district’s affairs is a reason our students receive a substandard education,” an 18-member task force of consultants and business and civic leaders assembled by Superintendent Ruben Zacarias concluded in February.

“The board practices undermine the authority of the superintendent, principals, teachers; cause confusion and needless disputes about how to use money; and lead to great inefficiency and, often, to unfairness,” the panel’s report contended.

The report went on to recommend that the board meet less often, focus on outlining academic goals, then steer clear so the superintendent could work toward meeting them.

The candidates Mr. Riordan has endorsed, all Democrats, share those concerns.

“Our school system is in crisis,” said Genethia Hayes, 54, the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, a civil rights group. “And while a variety of serious problems face our district, the biggest problem is that we have a board that doesn’t understand the role of policymaking.”

Caprice Young, 33, an IBM executive from the San Fernando Valley is also a harsh critic of the current board."Two-thirds of 3rd grade students and half of middle schoolers aren’t reading at grade level; classrooms don’t have books; basic discipline is being ignored,” she said. “And the current school board, which is profoundly dysfunctional, is moving so slowly towards reform that soon we’ll have another generation lost.”

Thanks largely to Mr. Riordan’s backing, the four candidates--Ms. Hayes, Ms. Young, Mike Lansing, and current board member David Tokofsky--have drawn widespread attention in the past several weeks. The mayor set up a political action committee, the Coalition for Kids, that amassed nearly $2 million for the four, with $270,000 coming from Mr. Riordan’s personal coffers.

The race has attracted extensive coverage on local television and in the newspapers, and the mayoral-backed candidates won a key endorsement recently from the Los Angeles Times.

Several of the 13 candidates, however, are running largely anti-Riordan campaigns, touting their independent status.

“Suddenly, our mayor would like to take over everything,” Barbara Boudreaux, 65, who is running against Ms. Hayes, said at a recent debate. Ms. Boudreaux, a former teacher, is seeking a third term on the board. “He looks at close to a $7 billion budget and would like to control it. Well, I don’t answer to the mayor.”

Austin Dragon, a 30-year-old employment recruiter who is running against Ms. Boudreaux and Ms. Hayes, hopes that his outsider status--he’s neither an incumbent nor a mayoral-backed candidate--will appeal to voters.

“This is a very expensive race and a very nasty race,” Mr. Dragon said recently. “We need to stop playing politics and get someone in who’s going to fight for children.”

No Collaboration

Absent from the hoopla surrounding the contest has been Superintendent Zacarias, a soft-spoken, 32-year veteran of the district who was appointed two years ago.

In an interview at the district’s headquarters on the edge of downtown, Mr. Zacarias, 70, acknowledged both the shortcomings of the board and the district. But he stopped short of blaming the board for specific problems and emphasized that, while overall performance may be low, there are many bright spots in the district.

“These seven board members who are elected as part-time representatives aren’t given training,” the superintendent noted. Yet they must deal with a host of challenges: “Overcrowded schools, a budget in the $6 billion-plus range, 700,000 kids, two-thirds of which are limited- or non-English-speaking, a very culturally diverse community.”

On top of that, various groups want to break off from the district. And there is “talk of the mayor wanting to be another Richard Daley,” Mr. Zacarias added, referring to the popular Chicago mayor who was handed broad control over that city’s schools by the Illinois legislature in 1995.

The superintendent said there have been some recent signs of improvement in the Los Angeles system. He added that he and the board have worked together to identify and assist the district’s lowest-performing schools, launch an early-reading program in elementary schools, and devise a plan, which takes effect this school year, to end social promotion.

Mr. Zacarias said he had not spoken with Mr. Riordan in depth about his views for the school system, but he noted that with the mayor’s history of involvement in education issues, “the sincerity of his concern for children is not even an issue.”

Whatever the outcome of the election, Mr. Zacarias said, his own focus won’t change. “From day one I’ve said my only agenda is improving student achievement. Period. You could replace the entire board tomorrow and my agenda would not change.”

Questions Linger

For his part, Mr. Riordan has kind words for the schools chief.

“It’s hard to judge him because he hasn’t been given the power to prove himself,” the mayor said. “He’s got to be given a chance.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether four part-time politicians can give Superintendent Zacarias the freedom to accomplish new things in a district where so many children are poor and have intense language needs.

“Changing the players is like shifting around chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” said Day Higuchi, the president of the 41,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles.

“Unless you fix the basic problems in schools--emergency-credentialed teachers, overcrowded schools, problems associated with poverty and language barriers, totally inadequate resources--everyone will be in the same pickle,” Mr. Higuchi said, and “the most accurate predictor of student achievement will remain a child’s ZIP code.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as L.A. Mayor Has Key Role in Board Race