Los Angles Mayor Seeks To Unseat 4 on Board

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Following up on a pledge to usher "a revolution" into the nation's second-largest school system, Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan has begun a campaign to unseat the four school board members who are up for re-election in April.

But his plan quickly hit snags, as some prominent African-Americans denounced it as unwanted meddling, and three of the four members vowed to fight for their spots on the seven-member panel.

In recent weeks, Mr. Riordan has stepped up his criticism ofthe board, saying that its members--elected from districts rather than at-large--micromanage the 682,000-student system. The Republican mayor, a former businessman, claims the board undermines Superintendent Ruben Zacarias' authority and has slowed the system's march toward reform.

Mr. Riordan, who has made education the top priority of his second term as mayor, has assembled a task force of about 30 business and community leaders to identify qualified and willing candidates to run for the four board seats on next spring's ballot. Those candidates, his advisers say, would have priorities that mirror those of Mr. Riordan's administration and would therefore speed the pace of change.

"Board meetings have become endless ordeals," said Theodore R. Mitchell, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an education adviser to the mayor. "A new board with renewed leadership would streamline the process." He added that a change in the board's makeup would bolster efforts to enhance accountability in the district.

Three of the four incumbents the mayor intends to help oust--Barbara Boudreaux, Jeff Horton, and George Kiriyama--have said they intend to fight for their $24,000-a-year posts. The fourth, David Tokofsky, a former teacher, said he would be willing to step aside at the mayor's request. But, as an ally of the mayor, Mr. Tokofsky doubts that once the plan shakes out, he will be targeted.

'Turnaround' Cited

Mr. Kiriyama, a former teacher and school principal, said the mayor's announcement came as a surprise. "We've worked diligently for reforming the system ... and there's been a tremendous turnaround since the appointment of Zacarias," he said last week. "I don't know why the mayor is picking on board members."

Ms. Boudreaux, the only one of the four who is African-American, did not return calls for comment, but a group of black leaders met on her behalf to denounce Mr. Riordan's plan.

"Thank you, Mayor Riordan, we appreciate your thoughts," the Rev. Robert Holt, the chaplain for the Black American Political Association of California, said of the plan at a news conference Sept. 15. "But we object to your colonial mentality and your unmitigated gall in trying to select our leader."

Mr. Zacarias has expressed bewilderment over both the mayor's timing--the plan was disclosed while Mr. Zacarias was out of the country--and his reasoning. Since returning, the superintendent has denied that there is trouble between him and the board that hired him in May 1997. ("Veteran L.A. Educator To Succeed Thompson," May 14, 1997)

Mr. Zacarias was "puzzled," by Mr. Riordan's plan, said Brad Sales, a district spokesman. "He has a relationship with the mayor, and the mayor chose not to communicate with him before making this announcement."

The superintendent "has said repeatedly that the board has been very supportive on every issue he's brought to them," Mr. Sales added. "There seems to be another agenda here."

Like most mayors, Mr. Riordan lacks direct statutory authority over his city's schools. But the announcement of his plan may signal a desire to emulate his counterparts in Boston, Chicago, and now Cleveland, who have been given direct control over their cities' large and troubled school systems.

After looking at models of school governance elsewhere, Mr. Riordan and his aides decided that recent changes to the schools in Sacramento, where the city's mayor helped oust a majority of board members, could also work in Los Angeles, said Mr. Mitchell, the Riordan adviser from ucla.

Complex Problems

The governance situation is even more complex in Los Angeles because the sprawling district's boundaries do not match the city's. Nine mayors, including Mr. Riordan, represent municipalities within the Los Angeles Unified School District. That prevents any one mayor from assuming control as in Chicago or Cleveland.

And some critics of the mayor's idea believe attempts to streamline the district's governance are impractical given the current political climate in Los Angeles.

"You can't apply corporate politics to this city," said Day Higuchi, the president of the 39,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles. "Democracy is never the most efficient way to deal with education in the short term, but in the long term it's the only way."

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Page 3

Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as Los Angles Mayor Seeks To Unseat 4 on Board
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