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Voters Face Decisions on Education, Leadership : Pasadena schools: Runoff pits board incumbent against challenger who won the most votes in last month's primary.


Pasadena Board of Education incumbent Wilbert L. Smith faces a tough runoff battle Tuesday against challenger Lisa Fowler, a former mayor of Sierra Madre who gathered the most votes in the primary.

Smith, 42, elected to the school board in 1989, is a former vice president of Bank of America who quit last year to head the Up and Coming Foundation, a nonprofit organization that educates and rehabilitates disadvantaged Pasadena children.

Fowler, 42, a city budget analyst for Pasadena, taught music for 13 years in Pasadena schools and served two terms on the Sierra Madre City Council.

In the March 9 primary, Fowler garnered 46.2% of the vote compared to 34.9% for Smith and 18.9% for Geoffrey Commons, the third-place finisher who did not qualify for the runoff election.

The candidates have accused each other of not being committed to Pasadena's public schools, which educate 22,000 students from Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre.

Fowler has made an issue of Smith's support of the 1994 state ballot initiative to establish a voucher system that would give parents money toward private education. Fowler opposes the measure.

She said Smith has opinions that do not reflect the communities served by the school district. Smith, a fiscal conservative, is often the lone dissenting vote on the board and favors running the schools more like a business.

"The district wants some change and needs someone whose views are in line with their own," Fowler said.

Smith said the voucher ballot initiative is a non-issue that voters across the state will decide next year and has little to do with the day-to-day operation of the Pasadena Unified School District.

He also said Sierra Madre residents have told him that Fowler was active in an unsuccessful attempt by that city's residents three years ago to secede from the Pasadena district and join the Arcadia Unified School District.

"Her husband, Douglas Farrell, even signed the petition," Smith said. "How could she have been for breaking up the school district and now want to be in charge of it."

Fowler denies the charge. Acknowledging that her husband signed the petition, she said, "we have differences of opinion. He is a Democrat. I am a Republican."

Fowler is depending on a strong voter turnout in Sierra Madre and says she will give the city a stronger voice in school board decisions.

Smith, one of two black school board members, said he is counting on the support of the African-American community. He has called for renaming the district's schools to better represent women and minorities.

Both support recent efforts by Supt. Vera J. Vignes to reach out to the community through two education summit meetings that aimed to involve parents in an ongoing restructuring of the schools.

Smith said the biggest task ahead of the school board is finding new sources of revenue as state dollars diminish. Fowler contends that public confidence can return only with more site-based management of schools.

As of Monday, Smith had raised $33,105 in campaign contributions, and Fowler had raised $16,106, including a $5,000 loan to herself.

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