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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

No More Mr. Nice Guy?

Some see Day Higuchi's low-key style as a welcome change for UTLA. But that doesn't mean he's an easy mark.

June 30, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Carrying two briefcases--one soft-sided, one hard, both filled to bloat--Day Higuchi can be spotted frequently hurrying through the corridors at Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters, late for an important appointment.

If it's a typical day for Higuchi, he left his Silver Lake home before 7 a.m. for a power breakfast--with a politician, perhaps, or a national labor union leader--and he may not return until near midnight, when he will raid his refrigerator for leftovers.

"I'm sort of getting used to it," he explains, matter-of-factly. Yet his ready acceptance of the sheer frenzy of this existence--mocked by the overlapping jumble of marks on his calendar--belies his discomfort with the metamorphosis he must complete.

At 54, Higuchi, the ultimate behind-the-scenes man, is about to take over one of the most public posts in this region: at one minute past midnight tonight he becomes president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, a powerhouse among the nation's educators' locals and second only to New York's in scale.

That filling the role played the past six years by media-savvy Helen Bernstein will be difficult is not disputed, least of all by Higuchi. But debate erupts over whether his style--more professorial than confrontational--will be a better fit for the immediate future of the 27,000-member organization.

Within the union, teachers who have worked most closely on school reform with the outspoken Bernstein are skeptical that Higuchi can keep up the momentum, not to mention win their loyalty. Those who have weathered Bernstein's scorching temper welcome a chance for redemption.

On the outside, school district officials are gleeful about what they perceive as a significant shift toward reasonableness, which they say is crucial as the district tries to achieve a delicate balance: defending itself against breakup proponents by preaching the wonders of education reform, while trying to patch the proliferating holes in that same reform program.

"We find him to be a very sincere guy and not vitriolic," says Eli Brent, president of the school administrators' union. "Helen's thrust is that to have reform, you have to hit someone over the head. . . . I think Day will see the big picture."

But some up on the Hill--as the district's headquarters is commonly known--warn that Higuchi's resolve may eclipse Bernstein's.

Many administrators believe "he won't be in their face. . . . They see him as this well-intentioned guy caught in the corner," says school board member David Tokofsky, a former teacher who won a tough runoff election last year with union support. "Day is even more persistent in many ways because he walks the halls of the [administration] building. He is right there at your door, saying, 'We need to talk about this now.' "

His wife, elementary school teacher Charlotte Higuchi, says: "He won't yell at you, he won't scream at you, he won't call you names, but he will not give up."

Such relentless follow-through catches those who do not know Higuchi well off guard. They are fooled by the qualities that lead to descriptions of him as the absent-minded professor incarnate.

His wire-rimmed glasses are always slightly askew. He sets his watch seven minutes ahead, but runs chronically late and sometimes completely forgets appointments, including the main interview for this story. Every surface in his office is covered with 3-foot-high piles of paper, at the bottom of which are urgent memos from 1994.

"It was always the joke of UTLA, 'Does anybody have a clue where this man is?' " says Bernstein, who leaves the union reluctantly after serving the maximum term as its president. "When you found him, he was always doing something important, but he'd just forgotten to tell anyone."

During his six years as vice president, those important tasks included staging a mock funeral for public education following state budget cuts in 1992, during which a caravan of 10,000 cars tied up traffic at Los Angeles International Airport for four hours.

He also developed large portions of the doctrine guiding the district's major reform program, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--or LEARN--which gives more decision-making authority to teachers, parents and administrators at individual campuses that agree to sign on.

It is his tendency to dive into many challenges at once that seems to conspire against Higuchi's stated desire to be more organized. At UCLA he was trained in philosophy and chemistry, and in math and English (in part, he explains, he avoided the draft by taking enough course work to acquire a master's degree and six teaching credentials).

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