Schooled in Politics, Calif. Parents Regroup

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Fa'auluilito Meni's 20-month-old daughter won't start school for a while, but that hasn't stopped Ms. Meni from devoting herself to creating a new school district in this blue-collar town, about 15 miles east of the Port of Los Angeles.

"I'm planning for her future," said Ms. Meni, a public school teacher in the neighboring Torrance district. She is one of several parents who pledge to carry on a long-shot effort to have Carson secede from the sprawling, 723,000- student Los Angeles Unified School District. "I was so ready for us to bring about positive change."

But, after a bitter defeat at the polls on Nov. 6 taught them some lessons about the political strength of teachers' unions, the backers of a new Carson Unified School District are starting over from scratch— a process that could take several years.

In the meantime, they are discussing what they've learned and what they might do differently the next time they challenge the United Teachers Los Angeles, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The union outspent the grassroots organizers by a 5-1 ratio in its bid to block the secession drive. "The loss was a blessing in disguise," argued George Harris, the husband of Carolyn L. Harris, the 62-year-old grandmother who led the effort to get the question on the ballot. She also ran for a seat on what would have been the new Carson school board.

"If there is a subsequent movement," he said, "the possibilities of success are much, much greater."

'Something Drastic'

Even though Measure D, as the ballot proposal was called, failed by a 3-1 ratio, the outcome hasn't discouraged a growing number of other secession groups into giving up their efforts to leave the Los Angeles schools. It has, though, left them wondering whether they need new strategies to counteract the UTLA's message and political muscle.

Members of the Inner-City School District Association, a secession effort in south- central Los Angeles, plan to meet in January to review and plan their next move. The group has been gathering signatures to petition for a district that would serve 135,000 students—a step needed to get on a ballot.

"Something drastic must happen if we're going to save public education," said Clinton Simmons, one of the association's leaders.

The vote in Carson was also watched closely by residents of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley area, who are proposing to split from Los Angeles Unified and into two districts, each with about 100,000 students. The California Department of Education, however, recommended late last month that the petitioners' request for a secession vote be denied for failing to meet meet two of the nine qualification criteria.

Early secession efforts, meanwhile, are also under way in other parts of the South Bay area, which includes Lomita and San Pedro, and in Districts J and K, two of the Los Angeles system's mini-districts that were formed last year.

For its part, the teachers' union is determined not to lose any part of the nation's second-largest school district.

"We're opposed to any breakup of any area that is now L.A. Unified," said Steve Blazak, a spokesman for the powerful 45,000-member union.

'Instilling Fear'

The parents, grandparents, and other Carson residents who campaigned for Measure D say they were motivated by frustration with big- district bureaucracy.

When they began the secession push, they knew they wouldn't be in an even fight, they say. They had about $5,000 to get their message out, compared to five times that much spent by the opposition.

The secessionists are most angered by what they believe were illegal campaign tactics, and have accused teachers of campaigning against the measure on school grounds and at polling sites.

They remain convinced that the UTLA won the battle at the polls by frightening teachers and students with unfounded statements about what would happen if the measure passed. The union had asserted that many teachers would leave the new district, and that city taxes in Carson would rise.

"The UTLA did a good job of instilling fear in people," said Maya Brown, one of the parents here.

Ms. Meni has asked the local district attorney to investigate the union's campaign practices. The request is pending. Mr. Blazak of the UTLA rejects claims of campaign improprieties. He says that Carson residents defeated the measure because secession supporters didn't have a "well-thought-out plan."

As the secession organizers eye a comeback, they say it's important to win over at least one local politician. Past support from the Carson City Council has faded as new people were elected.

Ms. Harris said another obstacle the secessionists faced this Election Day was the high number of "transplants from L.A., who are still loyal to L.A."

District J Next?

Despite last month's loss at the polls, some observers say the citizens of Carson stand a better chance of getting their own district than other secession groups do because Carson, a diverse city of 90,000, has its own city government. Other local secession efforts encompass a variety of incorporated and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

"It's really hard to predict into the future what might happen," said Christy White, a partner in an accounting firm that is conducting a feasibility study on the possible secession of District J, a southeastern part of the county, which includes the towns of Huntington Park, Cudahy, and Maywood. The firm will present its findings to the state education department by the end of March.

Unlike the other efforts, which began with petition drives, the movement in District J started with legislation. During the 2000 session, the California legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, appropriating $100,000 for the study.

Although officials of the Los Angeles Unified district have maintained that the school system doesn't have a position on the secession movementin Carson, or anywhere else in the county, Superintendent Roy Romer said that the November defeat "indicates a very strong vote of confidence in this district."

In any case, the ongoing secession attempts come with the territory, district spokeswoman Susan Cox says.

"That fight has been going on for a long time," she said. "It's like smog. It's out there."

Vol. 21, Issue 15, Page 8

Published in Print: December 12, 2001, as Schooled in Politics, Calif. Parents Regroup
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