LONG BEACH — The City Council on Tuesday will be asked to place on the Nov. 4 ballot a measure that could radically alter the makeup of the Long Beach Board of Education, potentially affecting the way the city's schools will be run for decades to come.
At issue is whether board members should continue to be elected by the district's voters at-large or be elected by region as is the City Council.
"It (the change) would fragment the district," said board member Elizabeth Wallace, who, like most of her colleagues on the board, opposes the measure. "It doesn't make sense, and I don't see that it would do anything for education."
Argued Sid Solomon, secretary of Citizens for a Representative School Board which is pushing the proposal: "We think the school board is isolated from the real communities of Long Beach. When all the areas of Long Beach get somebody on that board, it will change the whole structure--we need a new method of democracy to solve the (district's) problems."
The argument is not without precedent. Two years ago the same citizens group--a coalition of about 20 organizations including Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the National Organization for Women, the City Employees Assn., and the Chicano Political Caucus--collected enough signatures for a referendum calling for regional school board elections. Because the change required an amendment to the city charter, the coalition went first to the City Council with its ballot request, but was turned down. And 54% of Long Beach voters ultimately rejected the measure.
Since then, according to Solomon, several things have changed. The problems of the school district, he says, have become more evident. The new proposal has been amended in a way that he believes will reduce the cost of its implementation. And because of recent changes in the makeup of the council, a majority of its members now say they favor the idea of regional school board elections, thus eliminating the need for another petition drive.
Under the present system, the board's five members are elected to staggered four-year terms by all the voters in the district every two years. Under the system proposed by Citizens for a Representative School Board, the district would be divided into five sub-districts, which would each elect its own representative to the board. In addition, the proposal would make school board elections concurrent with City Council elections held in even-numbered years. (School board elections are currently held in odd-numbered years.)
Proponents argue that regionally-elected board members would be more accessible to parents and more sensitive to local concerns. Of the five current board members, they point out, four live within two miles of each other in the affluent east side of town while only one--Wallace--lives in the northern part of the city. The proponents say that in a district that encompasses 130 square miles including all of Long Beach, Signal Hill, Catalina and about 60% of Lakewood, large segments of the district's population are effectively disenfranchised.
"The life styles we have on the board are basically five affluent people who live in affluent areas and that's not what the school district is like," said Shirley Guy, executive director of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach which supports the proposal. "The board needs to be more representative of the city geographics; (otherwise) you end up with a very exclusive group of people determining the goals of the schools."
Added Solomon: "We have a whole new ethnic population in Long Beach and this board doesn't represent them."
As examples of issues they believe the present board has failed to deal with effectively, members of the citizens coalition cite drug and gang-related problems, overcrowding, high drop-outs rates and low employee morale.
The new proposal does not call for an expansion of the board, unlike Proposition S, which was defeated in 1984. It proposed expanding the board from five to seven members, which according to estimates by the city clerk's office, would have cost the city $1 million in the first four years of operation.
"We lost a lot of support on the financial issue," said Solomon. By keeping the size at the current level, he said, costs would be far less than the estimates associated with the 1984 proposal.
But Lynda Burgess, the chief deputy city clerk who worked up those estimates, disagrees. "The costs would be relatively (the same)," she said, saying that arranging for five separate district elections would raise administrative costs.
And most board members say they fail to see any connection between their responsiveness to district problems and where in the city they live.
"I serve on the board in the best interests of all the kids," said John Kashiwabara, the board's president and its only minority member.