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Juggling Jobs a Way of Life for School Trustees

Serving on the L.A. Board of Education takes many hours, but pay is low. Some members must have other employment.

August 29, 2004|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

As a Los Angeles school board member, Mike Lansing serves 900,000 students and helps administer a budget of $6.8 billion. That's twice the number of people a state assemblyman represents, and more money than the gross domestic product of Ethiopia.

But technically, being a board member is part-time duty. It pays $24,000 a year. So Lansing juggles his day job -- directing two Boys & Girls clubs -- with his other day job, serving on the Los Angeles Board of Education.

Trustee David Tokofsky and board President Jose Huizar understand his dilemma. The four other trustees are retired or wealthy. Tokofsky, Huizar and Lansing are not.

But like their colleagues, the three sit through lengthy board meetings, make small-talk with parents during campus visits and perhaps scale playground equipment with kindergartners. They hand out diplomas, cut ribbons and break bread now and then with cafeteria workers.

This is not to suggest the role of school trustee is an entirely altruistic endeavor. Trustees also devote a significant amount of time to fundraising, meet-and-greets and otherwise getting reelected.

"They are still politicians," said Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. And being on the board can lead to other elected offices.

By comparison, Los Angeles City Council members make about $130,000 a year and administer a budget that is less than half that of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Los Angeles can be an expensive place to live, and even with spouses working, some past school board members have had to take out second mortgages on their homes to make ends meet.

All of which raises a question about the job status of school trustees: Which part is the part-time part?

As Lansing, Tokofsky and Huizar have discovered, being a school board member and a part of the workforce means finding an employer who is more than accommodating and a job, preferably with above-average pay, that doesn't present too many conflicts of interest.

During his packed days, Lansing pingpongs along the 24-mile route from board headquarters downtown to the Boys & Girls clubs he oversees in Wilmington and San Pedro, where a cluttered desk dominated by a computer screen ringed by sticky notes awaits him.

A recent Tuesday was typical. Lansing began at 8:30 a.m. at the San Pedro club, discussing plans for a new gymnasium. By 10:30, he was in a closed-session school board meeting downtown. A regular board meeting began around 2. In between, he squeezed in a conference with his district staff and met with schools Supt. Roy Romer.

"All these things blend in, meld in together," he said. "I'm just trying to remember -- who am I talking to again? It gets nuts, but it flows together pretty good."

There are days when Lansing's chief of staff, Broc Coward, offers to join him in the car for the trips between San Pedro and downtown L.A. "I think about how to be the body in the car to get him in the carpool lane, because it's so bad," Coward said.

Lansing can't miss many meetings because state laws mandate that school board members approve every district contract worth more than $25,000, and every personnel change. Because L.A. Unified includes more than 950 K-12, adult and early education schools and has embarked on a $14-billion program to build 160 schools, the number of decisions to be made is staggering.

Then there are the meetings -- committee meetings, meetings with district staff, meetings with Romer. And, of course, official meetings of the full board, which are scheduled every two weeks but often occur weekly. These meetings, which are televised, begin near noon and stretch toward midnight with an alarming frequency.

The briefing books prepared for each board meeting are usually 3 inches thick, and often come in multiples. Tokofsky's staff routinely ferries documents to his car in a shopping cart.

Some former and current members say that the district needs to consider ways to limit the trustees' involvement in the day-to-day running of the school system. Others say that the district should consider lobbying for charter reform to make theirs into full-time jobs.

Board members will admit they receive some perks -- a car allowance for starters, as well as a budget for an office staff. But still, most worry that added in with the very nature of the job -- long hours, low pay and often divisive elections -- the part-time status limits who may want to be a member of the school board.

"Who do we expect to run for these positions?" asked Huizar, the board president, who is also an attorney. Huizar, 35, and his wife, Richelle Rios, the assistant director of L.A.'s Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families, have one young daughter, with another on the way.

"Not too many people are willing to make that sacrifice," he said.

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