LONG BEACH — In a development that could change the balance of power in the Long Beach Unified School District for years to come, the local teachers union has emerged as a major factor in local school politics.
"It's a new era," said Felice Strauss, president of the 2,100-member Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, after Tuesday's bitterly fought school board primary elections. "The opinions of teachers in Long Beach have (finally) become important."
Competing in the first-ever school board elections run by district rather than citywide, union-endorsed candidates made their way into runoffs in three of the five districts and won outright in a fourth. The union's only failure came in District 5, where Rabbi Jonathan M. Brown--who had the union's endorsement--placed fourth in a field of 10, with Karin Polacheck and Dea Langlois finishing first and second respectively for a June 7 runoff.
The one victory came in District 4 where Harriet Williams--until now the only board member who has consistently supported binding arbitration of grievances, one of the union's major demands--trounced fellow board member John Kashiwabara by more than a 2-1 margin. The two trustees ended up in the same district under the new voting formula, which will see at least three new members on the five-member board.
"It's going to be fascinating to have a board with a majority of new people on it," Williams said. "I think it's going to be an exciting challenge."
Kashiwabara would not comment on his defeat, except to say that allegations in the closing days of the campaign regarding his performance as a medical doctor at Long Beach City College "didn't help."
Some female staff members at the college have alleged that Kashiwabara subjected them to humiliating physical examinations. However, a spokesman for the State Board of Medical Quality Assurance said the board has received no complaints regarding Kashiwabara. In a letter sent to voters last weekend, Kashiwabara called the allegations "a vicious, desperate attempt to mislead voters and discredit my integrity."
The only other incumbent seeking reelection--Elizabeth Wallace in District 1--narrowly missed victory and will face a runoff with Jerry L. Shultz.
Two in Runoff
"I don't think this speaks well for an independent school board," Wallace said of her failure to win a majority against the union-backed Schultz and two other challengers. "It's an example of a very well-orchestrated campaign by a very strong, well-financed special interest group. I certainly don't anticipate a pleasant runoff."
In District 2, teacher-backed Bobbie Smith finished slightly ahead of Doris Topsy-Elvord, who she will face in a runoff. Because both are black, the school board is sure to have its first black member.
And in District 3, Jenny Oropeza--who teacher union officials said they had believed would win outright--was forced into a runoff with Polly Garverick Ridgeway, who came in second.
Oropeza blamed her failure to garner a clear majority on a last-minute mailer by Ridgeway alleging, among other things, that Oropeza had paid people to work in her campaign, a claim Oropeza denies. "It appears that old habits die hard on Locust," said Oropeza, referring to the school district's administrative headquarters on Locust Avenue, which she claims has played a major role in Ridgeway's campaign.
Ridgeway could not be reached for comment. Last week she had said she considered the election "a private matter" which she did not wish to discuss.
Besides contributing a great deal of volunteer time, the teacher's union donated an unprecedented $30,000 that was spread among its chosen candidates. Of the five, only Williams had refused the union's offer of $2,500 in local funds and $5,000 from the California State Teachers Assn. With three runoffs, Strauss said the union plans to ask its members to contribute even more money for political purposes between now and June 7.
In selecting candidates it would support, its leaders say, they required agreement on two issues favored by the union: binding arbitration of grievances and a vote by teachers on the question of adopting an agency fee paid to the union by all district teachers, including those who are not members.
"This election is very important to us," Strauss said. "We feel it's a victory not only for TALB and the teachers, but for the community."