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A Lesson for Riordan: Time to Butt Out . . .

March 25, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Have you noticed how many candidates in next month's election for Los Angeles mayor and City Council seem to be running, instead, for the Board of Education? In campaign literature and on TV, it is now de rigueur for candidates to be shown in classroom settings, presumably helping all the kiddies in the background with homework.

Clearly, all these candidates have been convinced by their campaign consultants, if not by thousands of encounters with potential voters, that the sad state of the city's public schools is a very big issue.

Which makes it all the more ironic that the field of nine candidates actually running for three school board seats on April 10 is so utterly lackluster. With just two notable exceptions, everyone running is either a weary incumbent, a well-meaning but unknown education activist or a political neophyte prodded into the race by Mayor Richard Riordan, who already controls three votes on the school board and needs just one more to have a majority of that seven-member body in his political debt.

Given that the Los Angeles Unified School District is the disaster everyone says, you'd think more of our best and brightest civic leaders would be rushing in to help save it. The fact that they are not running for the board is sad testimony to just how hopeless the situation at the LAUSD may be.

Of course, political insiders say there is a more benign explanation for the lack of smart, independent school board candidates: Riordan and his rich buddies are underwriting the campaigns of his hand-picked candidates and scaring off potential competitors.

Somehow that explanation doesn't make me any more confident about the future of public education in this city. After all, Riordan is the mayor who once packed the Police Commission with his puppets and engineered the ouster of a popular, if flawed, police chief, Willie Williams. He has spent the balance of his terms in office trying to explain away some of the worst scandals, and lowest morale, in the history of the LAPD.

Now that Riordan is being forced out of City Hall by term limits, he plans to shift over to LAUSD headquarters. He once told a Times reporter he wants to be the schools' computer czar, but most folks think he really wants to be superintendent. Sorry, but this is not the guy we want in charge--even indirectly--of the nation's second-largest (730,000 students and counting) school district.

Which is why the only hopeful sign on the horizon for the LAUSD is the fact there are two candidates running for the school board who have the money and moxie to tell Riordan where to get off.

Marlene Canter is the most impressive--a veteran special education teacher who founded a private teacher-training firm, then made her fortune selling it to Sylvan Learning Centers. But she faces the toughest challenge, running in a Westside district where Riordan may spend $1 million to help a real estate developer oust Valerie Fields, a worn-out liberal who didn't vote Riordan's way on a recent LAUSD labor contract.

Another capable and independent candidate for the school board comes from the Eastside, where Riordan is so distrusted by the city's Latino political elite that he couldn't find his own candidate to run for a seat being vacated by Vicki Castro.

Now Castro, and virtually every other Latino official in town, has endorsed Jose Huizar, a native of Mexico who was raised in Boyle Heights and made it to UC Berkeley, Princeton and UCLA Law School. Huizar has one weak opponent and should win easily, which is no doubt why Riordan has also endorsed him and donated a token sum to Huizar's campaign coffers.

Tellingly, the young attorney says several of his mentors told him not to run for the school board, warning him that it is a political graveyard. Given the short-circuited political careers of Castro and other Latinos who served on the school board--Leticia Quezada, Larry Gonzalez and Julian Nava--that is not bad advice. Yet Huizar insists he relishes the challenge.

"It's easy to promise to fix schools when you run for City Council," Huizar says. "You don't have to answer for the schools the way you do when you sit on the school board."

He points out that the greatest need for new schools is on the Eastside--and in several small, independent cities that also are part of the LAUSD--where there has been a recent influx of Mexican immigrants.

That is also where former LAUSD Supt. Ruben Zacarias had his greatest popular support before being ousted by a cabal of school board members Riordan helped elect two years ago. That crude coup d'etat generated enough anger to launch a movement to break up the LAUSD, and Huizar knows how strong that sentiment still is.

"I've told people to put their plans for secession on hold for now," he concludes. "If I don't get anywhere . . . I'd have no problem supporting a breakup."

That pragmatic outlook is sure to get Huizar the chance he is asking for from voters on the Eastside.

If L.A. public schools are ever to be saved, what they need now are people like Canter and Huizar. Otherwise--for all of Riordan's bluff, bluster and money--the LAUSD is doomed.

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