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School Board Contest Focuses on Ethnicity : Administration backs Latino candidates. Teachers union says the third challenger is more qualified.


Ethnicity has become the major issue in the April 12 election to replace the only Latina member of the Long Beach Unified School District's board.

Three candidates are vying to replace Jenny Oropeza, the first Latina trustee in a school system where Latino students are the largest single ethnic group. Oropeza is leaving the school board to make a run for the City Council.

Two Latino challengers have received the backing of both the current school board and Supt. Carl A. Cohn, who said the board should include a Latino. The Latino candidates are social services worker Olivia Nieto Herrera and Jerome Orlando Torres, an administrative analyst for the city of Long Beach.

Teachers union leaders have backed the other challenger, family counselor Bonnie Lowenthal. They said Lowenthal is the best-qualified.

The winner will represent District 3, which has the largest proportion of minority students, poverty-stricken families and children who speak little or no English.

Other board members facing reelection, Mary Stanton and Karin Polacheck, automatically received new four-year terms on the five-member board when no challengers opposed them.

In the race to replace Oropeza, the most vocal district critic is Torres, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 1988. Torres, 38, helped found the school district's Hispanic Advisory Committee, which advises the district on policies and actions that affect Latino students.

Torres is a critic of the district's voluntary desegregation program. He said the district should spend money on improving neighborhood schools instead.

"The busing isn't working, period," he said. "What it's doing is causing severe disruption in neighborhoods that are minority."

The other Latino candidate, Herrera, 60, is a founder and the director of Centro Shalom, a private nonprofit organization that helps homeless Latinos find food and shelter.

She and the other candidates speak out against gang violence. Herrera's 17-year-old foster son, Ulises Garcia, was gunned down last month as he sat in the front yard of a friend. She said the key to stopping the violence is for schools to do more to teach youths how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

"I don't want another parent grieving the way I'm grieving," Herrera said.

Lowenthal, 54, is planning director of the United Cambodian Community center, a private nonprofit agency that offers Asian immigrants counseling in family, business and health matters. She also has worked as a program administrator for a government-funded preschool program run by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Lowenthal said the district should identify troubled youths sooner, offer them special counseling, and show them how to get along. "We have to bring children up understanding and respecting each other," she said.

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