Incumbent John Greenwood this week accused challenger Warren Furutani of using "money stolen from children" to help finance his campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles school board, an allegation that Furutani said is false and "underhanded."
The exchange added spark and crackle to a candidates forum this week otherwise devoted to solemn views of the massive financial and social problems facing the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Seeking Third Term
Greenwood, who is running for his third term in the April 14 school board election, said the "stolen money"--in the form of $400 in contributions to Furutani's campaign--came from three South Bay businessmen implicated in an alleged scheme to embezzle $500,000 from the district.
"Mr. Furutani is accepting donations from the very people we are trying to prosecute at the very time we are trying to crack down on this situation," said Greenwood, reading from a press release put out by his campaign shortly before the candidates forum in the Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena. He called on Furutani, a UCLA administrator, to "return the funds to the district treasury."
Furutani, in a fiery response to what he termed Greenwood's "underhanded and personality-oriented" tactics, said the alleged thefts of school supplies over a three-year period would not have occurred in the first place if Greenwood, as board president during two of those years, had insisted on adequate record-keeping by district workers.
He called for an independent audit of the district's books to determine whether such losses are "only the tip of an iceberg."
Furutani, 40, said he had attempted to head off a controversy over the accused businessmen's donations by placing the $400 in a trust fund. He has reported campaign contributions of $51,000, while Greenwood has reported $29,000 in donations.
"We won't be using (the $400) in this campaign until this matter gets resolved where it should be resolved--in a court of law," Furutani said. "I'm not the judge."
Sharon Maeda, Furutani's campaign manager, said donations of $100 each were received "at community events" from Henry Shimohara, a Torrance resident who owns Lawndale Nurseries, and George Nakahara, of Gardena, manager of the firm. Another $200 was contributed by the George Kobayashi, an owner of Koby's Appliances in Gardena, she said.
Shimohara and Nakahara pleaded no contest last week to felony grand-theft charges, while Kobayashi was granted immunity from prosecution in return for cooperation with investigators. Several school employees also have been charged in connection with the operation of an alleged supply theft ring that Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner has estimated cost the district at least $500,000.
Furutani's remarks at the Gardena forum were frequently applauded by a contingent of teachers in the audience of about 100 people. They shouted approval of Furutani's contention that teachers "are sick and tired of the rancor" that he said has been directed at them by Greenwood and other trustees in the course of protracted salary negotiations.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles, which is seeking a 14% pay raise, has abandoned its past support for Greenwood and endorsed Furutani, along with Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is challenging board President Rita Walters.
Greenwood said he has worked hard to improve the salaries and working conditions of teachers. But the district, he said, must cope with many other demands on limited resources in its effort to educate a burgeoning school population. He said the district has squeezed $48 million out of its expenses to help finance a 10% raise offer to teachers, which would be retroactive to Nov. 1.
Furutani, who backs a "double-digit" salary increase for teachers, said the board's latest offer would provide only an 8% raise when averaged over the district's fiscal year.
Union leaders this week said the proposed raise was inadequate and branded it a "sneaky, underhanded ploy" aimed at helping incumbent board members win reelection.
Rapping Greenwood as an "arrogant" officeholder who tells people that the "board will do as it wants," Furutani offered himself as a "breath of fresh air" in a school system rife with disputes and bitter feelings.
Furutani said that if he is elected he will quit his job as coordinator of community programs at UCLA's Asian-American Studies Center and work full time on the school board. The post pays only $24,000 a year, but Furutani said his wife, Lisa, has offered to go back to work and he may do some consulting to help support them and their two children.