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Forces Behind the Vote

A Riordan-backed coalition and teachers union go head to head in school board races.

February 16, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Their names may not appear on the ballot, but their influence in the Los Angeles school board elections is undeniable.

On one side is the Coalition for Kids, a civic organization backed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad. On the other is the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a union with 47,000 members. Through cash, manpower and campaign material, the two sides are mobilizing again for the March 4 primary election, in which four of the board's seven seats are up for grabs.

The four incumbents seeking reelection -- Caprice Young, Genethia Hudley-Hayes, Mike Lansing and David Tokofsky -- were all part of the Riordan-backed reform slate that altered the balance of power on the board in 1999.

This time, the faceoff is more complicated because of the coalition's split with Tokofsky and support of his opponent, Nellie Rios-Parra.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
School board elections -- An article in Sunday's California section about the Los Angeles school board elections incorrectly identified John Regis Kuhn as one of three candidates in the San Fernando Valley-based District 3. Kuhn filed papers to run, but he did not receive the necessary number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. The candidates in that district are incumbent Caprice Young and Jon M. Lauritzen.

The union supports Tokofsky, along with Young's rival, Jon Lauritzen, and Hudley-Hayes' opponent, Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Lansing has the coalition's support, but the union declined to endorse his opponent, Gilbert Carillo.

The two groups are by far the largest contributors to the campaigns. In recent filings and interviews, the coalition reports it has spent $288,000 on school board candidates, while the teachers union reports donating $330,000 to its slate. Those figures are expected to increase significantly before March 4.

Such support is particularly important in Young's and Tokofsky's strongly contested races because redistricting radically changed their constituencies.

The election comes at a time when the Los Angeles Unified School District faces an estimated $480 million in budget cuts over the next 18 months, which worries the union because contract negotiations are scheduled for 2004.

The nation's second-largest school district also is being closely watched to see if it can overcome past embarrassments in school construction as it plans to build 120 campuses.

Riordan said the impetus for the Coalition for Kids was to counter the union influence on the board since the 1980s, which he blames for the district's underachievement.

"I believe in the children," the former mayor said in a phone interview from Barcelona, Spain, where he is traveling with Broad. "I would die for the kids."

He said his coalition wants "independent-minded" board candidates and hopes to "hold bureaucrats accountable."

John Perez, president of UTLA, said the union is "forced by our own members to get involved politically because we see an extreme amount" of financial waste in the district. He also alleges that Riordan and Broad want to dominate the board for their own political interests.

Young, a former Riordan aide and computer executive, seeks to be reelected in District 3, which was centered in Hollywood but has been redrawn entirely in the San Fernando Valley, including West Valley communities, North Hollywood and Studio City, where she lives.

Young, 37, said she is not bothered by the change, contending that every community in the school district ultimately has the same concern: the children. But her opponents, and some colleagues, say she is undergoing a transformation to improve her chances of reelection. They cite her recent proposal to split the district into 10 to 30 smaller entities, a plan that is popular in the Valley. Young said she has been interested in a breakup all along and has continued to pitch more school autonomy.

Young said her priorities are to attract quality teachers, bolster after-school programs and find a way to cap middle and high school classes at 30 students. A recording of Riordan urging voters to elect her is being phoned to homes. A coalition official said the group has spent about $88,000 on campaign mailings for Young.

The union sees Young as its best opportunity to unseat an incumbent who has clashed with the union. By Jan. 18, the latest date for which records are available, UTLA had spent $154,000 on the campaign of Lauritzen, a former Valley teacher who lost Assembly bids in 1996 and 2000.

Lauritzen, 64, has run ads on cable television blaming Young for increased class sizes and raising salaries for administrators. He opposes breaking up the district, wants to reduce class sizes and seeks ways to get retired teachers back to work, alleviating overcrowding in the 730,000-student district.

A third candidate, Hale Middle School teacher John Regis Kuhn, did not return phone calls seeking an interview.

As they have done in the past, ethnic issues may dominate the race in District 5. Tokofsky, who is white and Jewish, faces three Latino candidates in the district, which is centered in East L.A. and includes wealthier areas in the Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz.

Through redistricting, Tokofsky lost his East Valley area and gained Southeast cities such as Bell, Huntington Park and Vernon, which add more Latinos and African Americans to his constituency.

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