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Westside Race Is Costliest in History of School Board

Politics: Candidates raise a record $1.8 million. One calls the amount obscene but says, 'That's the way the game is being played.'


The race for a Board of Education seat on the Westside has become the costliest Los Angeles school board election on record, with three candidates having raised more than $1.8 million before the primary, records show.

The three--incumbent Valerie Fields, businesswoman Marlene Canter and real estate developer Matthew Rodman--are spending lavishly on mailers, television advertisements, banners and other publicity as the April 10 primary approaches.

So far, these candidates have spent nearly $1 million. None is expected to win outright in the primary, setting the stage for more aggressive fund-raising and spending in a June runoff.

"I think it's absolutely obscene," said Fields, who recalled spending $225,000 on her first school board election four years ago. "If I didn't do it, I wouldn't have a shot at being reelected. That's the way the game is being played."

The race in District 4--which stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley--is one of three school board contests. The two others are in the San Fernando Valley and the Eastside.

Mayor Richard Riordan is backing Rodman. The mayor's campaign committee, Coalition For Kids, has funded nearly all of Rodman's current $454,000 war chest.

United Teachers-Los Angeles, meanwhile, has contributed nearly half of the $565,000 raised by its candidate, incumbent Fields. Her contributions include $25,000 from the California Teachers Assn. and numerous smaller donations from individual teachers.

But it is Canter who is leading the pack in fund-raising. She has raised $815,000, lending her campaign $755,000 of the money. Canter is tapping her personal wealth, earned from a teacher training business she co-founded and ran for 25 years. She sold the company three years ago to Sylvan Learning Systems.

The money raised in District 4 dwarfs the previous record for a school board race. That record was set two years ago in an election involving another Riordan-backed candidate, Genethia Hayes, the current board president. She defeated incumbent Barbara Boudreaux in a contest that cost $1.4 million for both the primary and a runoff.

The three candidates have stepped up their campaigns in recent days, inundating voters with mailings and airing television spots on cable channels. They are all talking about safe schools, restoring basics to classroom instruction, more parent involvement and more accountability.

Rodman has stressed campus safety and school construction from the beginning of his campaign, themes that Canter has emphasized in recent mailers. Fields also has underscored the need for more schools in a new mailing.

Meanwhile, Canter has been critical of the school board for failing to put textbooks in the hands of students, a message that Rodman featured in one of his recent mailings.

The similar themes have prompted at least two candidates to accuse the others of co-opting their messages.

"If you go to a forum or a meeting, they talk about what I've been talking about for three months," Rodman said of his opponents.

Canter, meanwhile, said Rodman has grabbed her message about the school board failing to provide enough textbooks for students. "He's stealing my words," she said. "I've been saying that since the very beginning." Rodman said textbooks have been a constant theme in his campaign.

Those who keep a close eye on the election say the candidates have failed to distinguish themselves in a race that has turned mostly lackluster. The field includes a fourth candidate who has raised little money, retired teacher Rick Selan.

"You don't get a sense of what the issues are and the sense of the competing visions the candidates offer," said Mark Slavkin, who held the school board seat for two terms before Fields. "It seems like everybody is in a classroom with children saying, 'I'm for children. I'm for textbooks.' It melds together and I think that's the lost opportunity. There's no way to tell the candidates apart except by their personality or appearance."

Fields has focused a portion of her campaign on her recent split with Riordan. The mayor endorsed Fields last summer but withdrew his support when she refused to oppose a pay raise for teachers.

One Fields mailer shows a picture of her sitting with Riordan. It asks: "Do you think the mayor should be able to replace experienced and effective school board members just because he disagrees with them over teachers' salaries?"

The school board race in the Valley has offered more sparks. That race features incumbent Julie Korenstein and Riordan-backed challenger Tom Riley.

Korenstein, who was elected to the board in 1987, touts her experience and blasts Riley for his business--he makes equipment for bingo games. A Korenstein mailer presses that theme further with a graphic depicting students on a roulette wheel. Riley has said his primary market is charitable gaming.

Riley's TV spot and literature present him as a fresh leader with a strong background in fiscal management. They also attack "wasteful spending" and link Korenstein with the district's textbook shortage.

In the Eastside race, attorney Jose Huizar faces only nominal competition and is expected to win in the primary.

On one issue, most of the major candidates in the three races agree: The school board must do a better job of managing the district.

The board's effectiveness surfaced as an issue last week after a committee of prominent business people and civic leaders released a report criticizing it for micromanaging district business.

The major candidates met with the group, Committee on Effective School Governance, and endorsed its recommendations for reforming the board. The group proposed that the board meet once instead of twice a month and allow the superintendent to make spending decisions up to $1 million without its approval.


Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this story.

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