LONG BEACH — One of the most sought-after political speakers in town is a newcomer, District Supt. E. Tom Giugni.
Giugni is championing the interests of his employers in the final days of a fierce election battle over Proposition T, which would drastically alter the composition of the school board if approved.
The amendment calls for electing board members by region rather than through the current districtwide balloting.
If the amendment is approved Tuesday, four incumbent board members--all of whom live on the city's affluent East Side--would have to compete among themselves for a single seat or move to another section of the district to seek reelection.
Proponents of the amendment, which has strong financial backing from the teachers' union, argue that regional elections are needed to elect more minorities to the board and make it more responsive to less-affluent sections of the city.
Opponents, such as Giugni, counter that regional elections will only lower the quality of education because board members will be vulnerable to divisive ward politics and pressure from special interests.
Giugni spoke against Proposition T twice in the past two weeks--first at a forum sponsored by the Helen Keller Elementary School PTA and later at a League of Women Voters debate at a downtown restaurant.
Giugni's opposition mirrors that of four of five incumbents on the board that hired Giugni last year. Supporters of the ballot question say his opposition is symbolic of the need to challenge the interests that dominate the school district.
His participation in the two events was criticized by a school board member, two City Councilmen, and the teachers' union. The superintendent also was criticized by a Los Angeles Unified School District official who said Giugni did not have his facts straight when he told the League of Women Voters that school test scores in the Los Angeles district have decreased since voters approved regional elections for board members in that city in 1978.
In response to critics, Giugni says he is acting voluntarily, and on his own time, to express deeply held views. He said he has worked in a district that adopted regional elections and knows firsthand that the system hurts education.
"I sure hope I can take a stand like any other citizen," Giugni said in an interview last week. "I didn't sign away my citizenship rights when I became superintendent."
The superintendent was defended by incumbent board members who oppose Proposition T.
Board President John E. Kashiwabara said Giugni was acting on his own.
"There's nothing that prevents a school district employee from participating in the political process, as long as it's on his own time," Kashiwabara said.
Added board member James P. Zarifes, "People don't give up the right to be heard when they hold high office."
However, Donald Goddard, president of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, charged Giugni with a conflict of interest. "Board members should be out fighting their own battles, not a hired gun," Goddard said.
Harriet Williams, the lone school board member who favors the amendment, said she is "disappointed" by Giugni's partisan speeches. "I see (Giugni's) role as administrative, not political, and that's a political issue," Williams said.
City Council member Ray Grabinski declared it "unfortunate that Tom (Giugni) has to be the person out there carrying the spear" for school board members.
Added Councilman Clarence Smith: "It shows an insensitivity. I would think the superintendent of schools, just coming to Long Beach, should let the residents decide what their school board should look like."
Both Smith and Grabinski favor Proposition T.
At the League of Women Voters debate, Giugni said that since the Los Angeles Unified School District switched from citywide to district elections, student "test scores have dropped."
However, Floraline Stevens, director of research and evaluation for the Los Angeles district, said in an interview that test results for the California Assessment Program (CAP) have improved between 1977 and 1984.
During that period, reading scores for third-graders increased from the 39th percentile in 1977 to the 48th percentile in 1984; math scores increased from the 40th percentile to the 55th percentile during that period.
Math scores for fifth-graders went from the 44th to the 52nd percentile from 1977 to 1984. For eighth-graders, the math scores went from the 45th to the 50th percentile. Third-graders' math scores went from the 40th to the 55th percentile.
The only basic skills scores that decreased from 1977 to 1984 were reading scores which, for fifth-graders, which went from the 40th to the 39th percentile; eighth-graders' reading scores went from the 43rd to 42nd percentile, during a period where the number of students increased with limited English training.