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5 Spirited School Board Races Shaping Up : 19 Seek Opportunity to Grapple With Variety of Tough District Problems

March 16, 1987|PAMELA MORELAND | Times Staff Writer

Five of the seven seats on the Los Angeles school board are up for election next month, and spirited contests are taking shape in all five districts.

There are 19 candidates on the April 14 ballot.

The winners can look forward to grappling with a variety of tough problems, which at times could make their $24,000 salaries seem like small compensation indeed. Among them:

- A financial squeeze precipitated by the budget crunch in Sacramento, which will require the board to figure how to make do with less than enough.

- A running wrangle over salaries with United Teachers-Los Angeles that has led the teachers union to endorse challengers instead of incumbents in two districts.

- A student population that is growing far faster than schools can be built to accommodate it, forcing the board to take the unpopular step of putting more campuses on a year-round schedule.

- A succession of scandals, including the conviction of an inner-city elementary school teacher on 30 counts relating to child molestation, and the recent arrest of four school system employees charged with stealing at least $500,000 in money and supplies.

Accompanying these, of course, are the chronic problems of running a huge urban school system: high drop-out rates, poor academic achievement by many minority students and complicated legal disputes about desegregation and discrimination with black and Latino organizations. Starting in July, the board also will be learning to deal with a new chief executive--a successor to Supt. Harry Handler is expected to be chosen in the next few weeks.

Sometimes the sheer size of the school system is enough to make it seem unmanageable to board members. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation's second-largest public school system. Its budget this year totals $3.2 billion--almost $1 billion more than that of the city of Los Angeles.

There are 618 schools and 590,000 students. An additional 76,000 students are expected in the next five years. About 83% of the system's students are members of minority groups--56% Latino, 19% black and 8% Asian.

While there is considerable disagreement by the candidates on some issues, there is apparent consensus that Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed 1987-88 budget spells trouble. The governor is seeking a very modest rise in overall state spending on education, and cuts in a variety of specific programs that will hit particularly hard in Los Angeles.

The most severely affected would be integration programs, enrichment classes for gifted students and state-mandated programs such as proficiency testing and storage of immunization records.

There are additional money problems involved in the conflict between the school administration and the teachers union, United Teachers-Los Angeles. UTLA officials, expecting some lean years ahead in state financing, are holding out for the largest possible salary increase this year, and there are heated differences between union and school system about how much money is available for teacher salaries.

With the two sides at loggerheads, UTLA has decided to abandon its support of board president Rita Walters and board member John Greenwood and to endorse their respective opponents, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Warren Furutani. UTLA has also endorsed Julie Korenstein, a candidate for the open West San Fernando Valley school board seat.

In addition to the endorsement, the union plans to offer these candidates the kind of money and related campaign support that can make a big difference in the low-turnout circumstances that are typical of school board elections.

Union President Wayne Johnson said UTLA will focus for the most part on defeating the two incumbents. The organization plans to pump $15,000 to $20,000 into each race. On the three weekends before the election, UTLA hopes to have at least 400 of its members walking precincts for the challengers. The union also plans to directly contact 10,000 members that it estimates live in the two districts to encourage them to vote for the challengers.

"It is important for us to send a message to people who used us to get into office that you don't take our money and then turn your backs on us," Johnson said.

While the school system's problems are great, not all of the recent news from the Los Angeles schools has been bad. In the last five years, overall scores on standardized tests have inched upward. Last fall, construction began on the first school to be built in the district in 15 years. Innovative teaching techniques, such as the award-winning television show "Homework Hotline," have been introduced.

The board has implemented tough expulsion policies for on-campus possession of drugs and weapons and for violent acts against teachers. Los Angeles also has been a leader in the state education reform movement. The board was one of the first to establish the C-average rule for participation in extracurricular activities, to toughen graduation requirements and to lengthen the school day.

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