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Teachers Sluggish on Politics After Rigorous Primary

May 26, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The teachers are tired.

As a result, said the president of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, their active support for school board candidates has fallen off considerably since their success in the April primary.

"You ask people to put in all this money and time, and it's hard to do it all over again," said Felice Strauss, the association chief. "It's hard to get them rallied."

After pouring an unprecedented $30,000--some of it from the California Teachers Assn.--into the coffers of preferred candidates in April, Strauss said, the teachers have about a tenth of that amount available for the June 7 electoral showdown. And while volunteers were bountiful before the primary, she said, they seem to be far more scarce for the general election.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 29, 1988 Home Edition Long Beach Part 9 Page 2 Column 4 Zones Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
The Teachers Assn. of Long Beach supports Proposition 71 and opposes Proposition 72, two ballot measures that affect school funding. A story in the May 26 Long Beach section incorrectly reported the organization's positions.

To be sure, there are other reasons for the apparent slackening of teacher interest in school board races. The local group recently began preliminary talks with the district on a new contract, which is diverting much of the leadership's attention. The union is also heavily involved in a campaign to defeat state Proposition 71 and pass Proposition 72--efforts to raise state spending limits that would affect the amount of money going to schools.

But the major reason for the slowdown in fund raising and volunteer efforts, according to many involved in the campaigns, is simply the unaccustomed drudgery of having to do it all twice.

Under the old system, school board members were selected at-large in one citywide election. Two years ago, however, city voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition T, which divided the school district into five voting areas, declared that candidates needed more than 50% of the vote to win and scheduled school elections to coincide with City Council elections.

Under the new system, board members will eventually serve staggered 4-year terms, with elections every two years. To make the transition, however, this year's victors in Districts 1, 3 and 5 will serve for two years, while those in Districts 2 and 4 will serve for four.

Because four of the five incumbent board members lived in the same district, the new system promised to change the face of the board. Just one of the four would be able to emerge from the district election.

Ultimately, two incumbents decided not to run, leaving two more--Harriet Williams and John Kashiwabara--competing. The fifth incumbent, Elizabeth Wallace, faces a challenger in a separate district.

Those who favored the change said it would make the elections more democratic and the board more responsive to neighborhood needs. Opponents argued that it would result in increased factionalism among board members more committed to their specific areas than to the general good.

Whatever the case, the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, which had long argued that elections are controlled by school administrators, soon emerged as a major force in local school politics by contributing $30,000, more than six times the amount it had ever spent before, to candidates it had endorsed.

The results were telling: One of the endorsees--9-year incumbent Williams in District 4--won outright, while three others made the runoffs. Critics characterized the effort as an association bid to influence contract talks, particularly on the issue of binding arbitration of grievances. The union has long fought for the idea, which all of its preferred candidates favor.

Now that the union is slowing its efforts, however, the results are less certain. And, with one exception, the exchanges at a recent candidate forum were surprisingly polite.

The exception was in District 3, where Polly Ridgeway angrily accused Jenny Oropeza, who is backed by the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, of representing outside political interests in what should be a nonpartisan community race.

"I am being smothered and crushed by the political machine of my opponent," said Ridgeway, 53, a former teacher who sits on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Ridgeway said that Oropeza, 30, had accepted major campaign contributions from outside the school district, including a $10,700 loan from Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), for whom Oropeza works as a field aide.

Oropeza then accused Ridgeway of enjoying inordinate support from school administrators--to the detriment of teachers, parents and students.

"If you look at the names on her endorsement list," she said, "most of them come from one segment of the community. I have broad-based community support."

In other districts, however, few disagreements emerged.

In District 1 where 21-year school board veteran Wallace, 62, is facing a challenge by Jerry L. Shultz, the only substantive argument was on binding arbitration of grievances. Shultz, 41 and a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff who is backed by the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, said he favors the idea, while Wallace is opposed.

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