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FINAL ELECTION RETURNS | ELECTIONS

Lessons of Secession Bid Failure

Romer cites L.A. Unified improvements in Carson measure's defeat, but others see teachers union's clout as the key.

November 08, 2001|JEAN MERL and MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The crushing defeat of a ballot proposal for Carson schools to secede from the Los Angeles Unified School District left in its wake a debate over the influence of public employee unions in other breakaway efforts.

Was the 3-to-1 rejection in Tuesday's election a vote of confidence in the giant school district? Or was it a testament to the determination and power of public employee unions to fight such proposals and a cautionary tale for other groups wanting to leave either the school district or the city of Los Angeles?

Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said Carson voters were willing to give his district another chance because of its recent gains in statewide testing results and other improvements. Voters in the South Bay city turned down, 74% to 26%, the proposal to carve out their own 21,500-student system from the nation's second-largest school district.

"We have a distance to go, but we have made substantial progress," said Romer, who sees the vote as a "very good test case" for other school secession movements in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere.

But many political observers and activists cited the combination of a secession campaign run by political neophytes and a sophisticated anti-secession effort by United Teachers-Los Angeles, the district's most influential employee union, which outspent the opposition 25 to 1.

Political experts across the ideological spectrum agreed that public employee unions will continue to be big players in opposing breakaway drives. Those unions, they say, fear that creating smaller cities and school districts will erode their power bases.

"We will learn by the mistakes that occurred in Carson," said Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE, which seeks to split off the San Fernando Valley from the city of Los Angeles.

Close said his group has always anticipated needing a professional campaign to counter expected fierce opposition from public employee unions.

The Carson result "reinforces my belief that when the Valley cityhood issue goes on the ballot, we're going to have to be well-organized, well-funded and have professional consultants that know how to run campaigns," Close said. "It cannot be run by grass-roots people who are not professionals."

Democratic political consultant Joseph Cerrell said public employee unions "will absolutely play a key role in any future secession elections. They will want to keep the status quo."

Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg said that what happened in Carson "is not unusual. . . . Unions see these movements as threats to their power, and they see [pouring money and volunteers] into defeating these measures as a good investment."

The Yes on Measure D side, a small group of Carson residents who worked eight years to get the secession proposal on the ballot, had less than $5,000 and no political professional to guide them. UTLA poured more than $125,000 into the contest and used a professional consultant, political mailers and scores of teacher volunteers--many of them longtime Carson residents--to walk precincts and work telephone banks. Perhaps most important, they enlisted their students' parents in the cause, raising fears of overcrowded schools, the departure of most teachers and higher property taxes if the new district were formed.

As the first ballot test of secession fever in more than 50 years, the Carson vote was closely monitored by several of the separate movements underway.

Carolyn Harris, a leader in the Carson effort and the top vote-getter among the 18 candidates for what would have been its new school board, said she has no regrets about how the campaign was run.

"I'm disappointed, but I feel we did everything we could in a grass-roots campaign, which is what we wanted," Harris said Wednesday. "But I feel we accomplished something by bringing the [schools] issue to the community's attention."

She also blasted the teachers union as a "cartel of outsiders." Harris said she probably would help out with future secession drives but would not take a leadership role or seek office again.

"I want to spend time now with my family and my 10 grandchildren," Harris said.

Valley Leaders Say Drive Is Unaffected

But another organizer, Gloria Estrada, said she was ready to try again.

"How soon can we start signing people up again?" Estrada asked supporters gathered Tuesday night at the Carson Hilton Hotel.

A leader of the movement to form two Valley school districts from Los Angeles Unified asserted that the Carson experience has no bearing on her movement's chances.

"We're sad for them, but ours is a different issue," said Stephanie Carter of Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, which advocates formation of two 100,000-student districts.

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