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Will Defeat at the Polls Get the School Board Off Its High Mesa?

April 18, 1999|Marc B. Haefele | Marc B. Haefele is a staff writer and columnist at LA Weekly

On the east-facing cliff of the downtown mesa atop which sits the Los Angeles Unified School District offices, there's a carved memorial to the last time these heights were stormed. The inscription tells how they were seized from local Californios by Mormon militiamen in the Mexican-American War, more than 150 years ago.

No one had managed that feat again until last week, when an electoral assault led by Mayor Richard Riordan wrested the heights from incumbent LAUSD board members. Mike Lansing and Caprice Young beat incumbents George Kiriyama and Jeff Horton, respectively. Genethia Hayes didn't win outright but got more votes than incumbent Barbara M. Boudreaux, whom she now faces in a runoff. Riordan's forces, however, secured most of their objectives. They already had brought maverick incumbent David Tokofsky, who defeated independent candidate Yolie Flores Aguilar by the slenderest of margins, into their camp.

Even if Boudreaux defeats front-runner Hayes in the District 1 runoff in June, the disposition of the board must change. The largest single bloc of its seven members will no longer share the board's traditional devotion to the status quo ante of the regional education establishment, long a yin-yang of LAUSD policy and teacher-union politics, with low priorities for efficiency and innovation.

Instead, at least three members are now backed, financially and politically, by a man who appropriated the title "education mayor" five years before he figured out how to actually become one. We have not seen that agenda in full. Indeed, it may, at this point, exist only in the form of the mayor's assorted ventings to the effect that "Our Children Are Our Future." Riordan talks of phonics and structure but has yet to suggest the nature of the "revolution" he seeks.

Others want to see reform specifics. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who backed Horton, puts it best: "There are no excuses now."

But those who voted for the mayor's reform slate have good reason to hope that Riordan and his allies, having committed more than $2 million toward creating a new-look school board, will devote serious thought to determining how that board can both improve itself and revivify the vast, foundering L.A. regional school district that's responsible for more than 700,000 school-age pupils.

What Riordan's reformers must do is to change that virtually change-proof institution's fundamental culture, a culture of self-isolation from any influence outside the canons of education bureaucracy and labor relations.

Reporters generally interact freely with elected officials. When covering most city councils, county boards and legislatures, they approach officeholders after or even during sessions to ask questions. Not in LAUSD-land, where the board secretary got between me and a member after adjournment. I was told that if I wanted to talk to the board member, I could phone her office. An institution that keeps the press at arm's length isn't going to be any more outgoing to parents who really depend on it. This collective solitude, which often comes across an Olympian-like indifference, is inappropriate for a panel of part-time elected officials.

Yet, that's the way board members, when not facing election, have long behaved, particularly the recent board majority, led by freshly defeated Horton, who shepherded the shortsighted, overcostly and conceivably hazardous Belmont Learning Center project. (Ironically, Horton was the most accessible member of the board.) This majority's resistance to reasonable skepticism about Belmont and its insistence on plunging ahead with the approximately $200-million monster are typical of an institution that doesn't merely feel unaccountable, but revels in its unaccountability. For decades, the LAUSD panel has behaved less like a school board than like the World Bank or the Knights of Malta. The Tuesday election was, in part, a referendum on this tenacious policy--and the policy lost big.

But has accountability won? After all, while last week's turnout was fairly high--its 17.2% exceeded the 11.2% of 1995, the last off-year city election--the bureaucracy that discourages accountability remains entrenched on the LAUSD's mesa.

But the victories of Riordan's candidates may provoke more accountability. Other school-board incumbents may fear that they, too, could face a well-financed Riordan-picked challenger in two years if they don't follow the insurgents' lead.

We don't yet know, however, what that lead will be. But there's a good starting point ahead. It's only a year since the old board majority killed off the LAUSD's handful of volunteer minority-empowerment committees. These represented students ranging from Asian Pacific islanders and gays to those with physical disabilities. Their extinction was a result of the LAUSD self-isolation offensive. The panels are to be replaced, in no obvious hurry, by a 52-member Human Relations Education Commission.

The commission's activation date has not been set. Edward Negrete Jr., a respected Cal State L.A. education professor, is to head the commission's six-member staff.

Let the new board make this happen. Then let it turn this panel into something more than a panic button for disgruntled parents and students; let it become the board's ear to the huge community served by the LAUSD. As the board's only districtwide community panel, the human-relations agency could be an engine of accountability to the new board. And what the new board decides to make of the panel will tell us whether it intends to meet its mandate for accountability.

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