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Riordan Pledges to Raise $75 Million for Preschools

Education: During whirlwind bus tour of campuses, mayor says every child should have access to early learning classes.

February 13, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Richard Riordan pledged Monday to raise enough money to provide prekindergarten classes for all children in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Such a program would double the number of children enrolled and could cost the district an additional $75 million a year.

The mayor called the initiative a priority, saying the literacy skills taught in early childhood are essential to succeed in school. He said he will tap private sources and lobby Washington to fund the program.

"I'm committing, to the best of my efforts, to raise the money on an ongoing basis," he said. "[I'm] putting that at the top of my list."

Riordan made his remarks during a whirlwind bus tour of Los Angeles schools. The tour was designed to underscore the mayor's expanding focus on education in the waning months of his administration.

Riordan also said he believes that school board members should be appointed by the mayor rather than elected from individual districts, a theme he will expand on Thursday during a speech to educators at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Riordan will flesh out his education agenda further during a speech today at Weemes Elementary in South Los Angeles.

Riordan used the bus tour to emphasize the major themes in his education platform: making schools accountable, literacy and getting campuses built quickly.

He said he will call on the school district to expand the L.A.'s Best after-school program to every campus and to provide more Saturday and summer school programs for struggling students. He also will announce that he is creating a "construction czar" in his office to help L.A. Unified cut through red tape and build schools more quickly. That position was changed from an original idea to appoint an "education czar" in the mayor's office.

Riordan also said that having the mayor appoint school board members would improve district accountability. He noted that such a system has been successfully implemented in large cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston and Oakland, where Mayor Jerry Brown has the power to appoint three of 10 school board members.

Holding Mayor Accountable

"Instead of having an anonymous school board, why not have a mayor that can be held accountable?" Riordan said.

In lieu of that authority, Riordan has done the next best thing: Back candidates for the Board of Education. Three of his candidates now sit on the board, and Riordan again is backing three newcomers in this spring's election.

Riordan said that if he had the authority he would appoint such people as civil rights attorneys Constance Rice and Molly Munger, and Alice Callahan, who founded a skid row service center and is an ardent foe of bilingual education.

Riordan spent Monday hopscotching from school to school in a city bus. With reporters and business executives in tow, he zoomed from downtown to south Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere.

He spent much of the day highlighting the many partnerships he and his staff have forged between schools and the business community. He stopped at a biomedical firm in Atwater Village: Baxter Hyland Immuno, which announced that it would be providing mentors for the math and science magnet program at nearby Franklin High School.

At each of the schools, Riordan waded into cheerful crowds. Wearing a bright red sweater and seemingly unfazed by the cold weather, he hugged students, mugged for the cameras and made numerous promises that made his aides fidget nervously.

The first came at Norwood Street Elementary south of downtown, his first stop of the day, where a student complained about the hard asphalt playground.

"Can you change it to grass?" the student asked during an assembly in Riordan's honor.

"The answer is yes," Riordan answered enthusiastically, saying his office would contact a foundation started by actor Kirk Douglas that helps spruce up campus playgrounds.

At a Van Nuys center, Riordan said he would ask corporations to donate a canopy to cover an outdoor area where students eat their meals.

And Riordan told a gathering of deaf and hard-of-hearing students at the Marlton School in Baldwin Hills that he would lobby the new secretary of Health and Human Services in Washington for $1.5 million to equip the school with specialized phones.

"Get me a memorandum," Riordan told a teacher at the school. "Explain your needs."

Afterward, students said they were impressed.

"He has beautiful eyes," Beatriz Lemus, 12, said. "He seemed like he loved kids."

Each stop on the tour was designed to emphasize the themes in Riordan's education agenda.

At one of his last stops of the day, the mayor watched down a muddy alley near West 81st Street as city crews bulldozed a crack house that had been a blight and a safety concern. He said students can't excel in school if they live around unsafe conditions.

"Every child has the right to live in a quality neighborhood," he said.

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