Gardena adult school Principal George Kiriyama won a seat Tuesday on the Los Angeles Unified School District board by taking a majority of the votes in a race where poll watchers and candidates alike felt sure there would be a runoff.
Kiriyama, the hand-picked successor of retiring incumbent Warren Furutani, dodged a runoff against three other candidates who had accused him of excess spending, political opportunism and carpetbagging in the race for the District 7 seat.
He won 51% of the vote in the district, which covers a large portion of the South Bay, from San Pedro and Wilmington to Watts.
"I'm elated. They (voters) knew what I stood for and they came through," Kiriyama said after the election at his campaign headquarters, where he was surrounded by cheering supporters.
Kiriyama's opponents split the remaining votes. Businesswoman Laura Ann Richardson, 32, gathered 22% of the vote; retired district administrator Sid Brickman, 68, received 14%, and attorney Kathleen Fleming Dixon, 42, took 13%.
A career district employee, Kiriyama, 63, joined Los Angeles Unified in 1964 as an elementary school teacher and has been principal of Gardena Community Adult School since 1990.
He said his priorities for the district would be to push for campus safety and fiscal responsibility. He advocates the use of walkie-talkies between classrooms and front offices, and he said he would lobby the district's budget office to produce a computer program that would provide information on how money is being spent.
He also strongly supports taking decision-making power away from the district office and giving it to advisory committees of parents, teachers and administrators at every school.
"It takes a whole community to run any school program," he said. Kiriyama was the best financed of the group, raising more than $140,000 and spending the majority of it on his bid for the seat. The next highest fund-raiser was Brickman, who took in nearly $35,000--one-fourth of Kiriyama's total. Richardson raised $16,000 and Dixon about $5,000.
The lavish financing of Kiriyama's campaign, which he spent on mailers and campaign staff, raised criticism among the candidates. Kiriyama, who knew in advance that his friend, Furutani, would be retiring from the post, had almost a two-year lead in fund raising.
Dixon, who ran as a reformer with a grass-roots campaign, complained that the money influenced the outcome of the election.
"Clearly the difference in the amount of money raised gave him the edge," she said. "That kind of money being spent on an election like this is obscene."
Kiriyama also came under fire for moving into the district to run for the seat. Kiriyama moved from his home in Torrance in March, 1994, into a guest house in Carson. He has moved three times since then but has remained in the district. He vowed to look for a permanent residence if he won the election.
Kiriyama dismissed the criticism about his move, pointing out that he did nothing illegal and saying his experience in the community more than qualified him for the seat.