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shaping Los Angeles County

Money That Gains Interest

Campaign donations to L.A. Unified board members come mostly from employee groups or workers, records show. They end up largely controlling the district's politics, officials say.

April 17, 1998|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a group, Los Angeles school board members received most of their political money from the same unions and district employees that lobby them for raises and other job benefits, a computer analysis by The Times shows.

In all, employee groups or individuals drawing a Los Angeles Unified School District paycheck accounted for 58% of the campaign funds and in-kind services contributed to the seven incumbents since 1995, the analysis shows.

And the top giver was the group with perhaps the most at stake: United Teachers of Los Angeles, the bargaining unit for 36,000 of the district's teachers, counselors and other employees with teaching credentials, records show.

Those findings, say board members, confirm the common notion that the politics of the nation's second-largest school district is largely controlled by the people it employs, not necessarily the parents and students it serves.

They blame public apathy and the flight of middle-class parents--and with them, their checkbooks--for an electoral void that gives teachers, janitors, counselors, campus police officers and principals undue clout in picking their bosses.

"This means that those organizations with a particular interest in the school board have a disproportionate influence," said school board member Jeff Horton. "They are in a smaller pool of people interested in contributing.

The Times studied 2,400 campaign contributions listed on public reports by school board incumbents between January 1995 and December 1997.

However, the analysis didn't include the names and affiliations of hundreds of donors who gave $99 or less, contributions that need not be publicly itemized.

But board members said The Times' analysis underscored the realities of school board politics. Among the findings:

* Of the $756,697 in itemized donations to the incumbents, $439,190 came from at least 10 employee unions or interest groups, as well as 660 individuals who identified L.A. Unified as their employer.

* Teachers unions gave the most. UTLA donated $253,405 and the statewide California Teachers Assn. gave $20,000.

* Next were classified employees such as janitors, whose unions gave $37,850, then school administrator groups ($21,400) and L.A. Unified police officers ($14,700).

Horton blamed public apathy for the sheer volume of money donated by unions and individuals interested in an L.A. Unified paycheck, giving at least some of the individual board races the feel of a self-perpetuating machine.

"It's hard to raise money other than from those unions, because a lot of people say, 'What school board? We don't care. We care about City Council and [state] Assembly,' " said the veteran board member, whose district includes West Hollywood and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

When it comes to union power, Horton knows the score.

In 1991, he won his first bid for his district largely on the strength of UTLA money, which he estimated made up about a third of his political war chest.

But once in office, Horton said he immediately alienated the teachers by voting to impose pay cuts on them as well as other employees during an agonizing L.A. Unified retrenchment. When it came to run for reelection in 1995, UTLA didn't give him a dime.

Instead, Horton said he was forced to approach other L.A. Unified-related unions, where he received a warm reception because he sided with them on how to make the cuts, making sure they fell lightest on employees making the least.

The result: The classified union, its affiliates and individual contributors with non-teaching L.A. Unified positions gave Horton 30% of the money for his successful reelection, The Times analysis shows. Other blue-collar unions followed suit.

"He was there for us on that," said Tom Newbery, chief negotiator for the Service Employees International Union.

UTLA President Day Higuchi makes no bones about putting the union's money where its friends are.

"I think its our obligation to support people who will listen to our issues and support the position of our membership," said Higuchi. "I don't feel apologetic about that at all.

"You want access to people who are receptive and friendly to your point of view. The other school board members have, you know, voted for pay cuts, have taken inimical positions on policies relating to the welfare of our members."

Both Higuchi and Newbery stress that union campaign contributions aren't based on bread-and-butter issues alone. The groups back candidates who are also aligned with them on policy issues, such as teacher mentor programs and reforming far-flung L.A. Unified bureaucracy.

George Kiriyama credited his L.A. Unified support to personal associations he formed over 31 years as a teacher, administrator and principal.

"I got it from gardeners, from maintenance workers. I got it from secretaries. And although I didn't get money from the teachers union, I have a lot of friends who are teachers, because I was a teacher for 13 years."

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