LONG BEACH — On a recent Thursday afternoon at the local Elks Lodge, 50 places were set for a "Meet the Candidates" luncheon: 50 name tags awaited the lapels of eager voters; 50 orders of Salisbury steak bubbled in the lodge kitchen, 50 dishes of raspberry sherbet were chilled and ready for desert.
But as the event wore on, it gradually became apparent that everyone who came for lunch and information about the upcoming school board and community college trustee races could have had a second helping. The banquet room was half empty, and the candidates themselves made up about 30% of the audience.
Where were the voting masses, yearning to be informed, some of the more than 200,000 registered voters who could make their wishes known on March 19?
"Not here," one candidate grumbled. "No one cares about the race."
Not 'Much of a Race'
With less than a week before greater Long Beach area voters go to the polls to choose two school board members and two community college trustees, few of the 13 candidates are expecting more than the 10% voter turnout seen in the past two elections.
"I don't think it's much of a race," said Gary Goodenough, one of four candidates for the college board seats, as he watched the audience trickle in for the candidates' forum. "I think it's apathy. You just can't get people stimulated. Look at the turnout today--it's the result of more than 800 invitations."
Many candidates and election-watchers contend the apathy is the result of the candidates themselves. There are two positions to be filled on each of the boards, and strong incumbents are seeking reelection.
In the Long Beach Unified School District's 100-year history, no incumbent has ever lost an election, and incumbents Elizabeth Wallace and James Zarifes are likely to continue that tradition.
The district covers nearly 130 square miles, including Long Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Catalina Island and about 60% of Lakewood. It has 79 schools, an annual budget of $221 million and about 62,000 students.
Although about 56% of all district students are members of ethnic minorities, up from 50% in 1981, there has been only one minority school board member in 100 years--Dr. John Kashiwabara, who was elected in 1983.
Cruz Wins Endorsements
This year, the most widely favored candidate outside of the two incumbents is Ramon Cruz, 42, who runs the Educational Opportunity Center at UCLA, which offers academic counseling to minority students.
Cruz has been endorsed by the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, a coalition of local groups called the Council of Long Beach Organizations, the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club, the National Organization for Women, Long Beach Area Citizens Involved and by Joe Saucedo, president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"The biggest problem is that the voters and the citizens in general aren't aware of the poor quality that does exist in our schools today," Cruz said. "In addition, people have given up on our public school system. Their alternative is to put their children in private schools. It's happening in the white community and among middle-income Hispanics and blacks."
Cruz said programs should be created to identify talented students and nurture them through the academic process, with tutoring and efforts to involve parents. In addition, he said, the problems of an increasing dropout rate and decreasing test scores should be addressed.
Ben Lipson, 60, has received almost as many endorsements as Cruz in his campaign for school board. He has been backed by the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club, the National Organization for Women, the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, the City Employees Assn. and Long Beach Area Citizens Involved.
Not Enough Money
Lipson has taught for 34 years--32 of them in the Long Beach district--and he contends that there is not enough money available to implement the sweeping changes being sought in education today. In addition, he said, some new programs do not belong in the schools in the first place.
"We have been forced to be everything to everybody," Lipson said, "and it's just not possible."
Lipson said the most pressing issue facing the school district today is the lack of qualified teachers. "There are relatively few young people entering education today," Lipson said. "One who enters education in Long Beach attains the maximum pay scale in 15 years, at (age) 35 or 36. What's next?
"There has to be a re-examination of the pay structure so that people are attracted to education and stay there."
In contrast, incumbents Wallace and Zarifes are running on what they contend to be the school district's reputation for quality education.
"We have always kept our schools on an even keel," said 58-year-old Wallace, who has been on the school board for the past 17 years. "We have faced crises of major and minor magnitude and met them with common sense and a good administration."