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School board reform plan on ballot

Amendment L, which would set term limits and restrict campaign contributions, is expected to win voters' approval next month.

February 19, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Voters in the Los Angeles Unified School District will decide next month on a little-watched amendment to the City Charter that aims to rein in the frenzied nature of school board races with campaign contribution restrictions and term limits.

Supporters of the proposed amendment say it is needed to bring the school board in line with other elected bodies. But the idea has riled most of the school board, which sees it as another attack in the long-running battle with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his allies for control of the nation's second-largest school district.

If Charter Amendment L passes on March 6 -- as is widely expected -- donors would be allowed a single $1,000 contribution to each candidate and the city's more restrictive rules governing what candidates must disclose about campaign finances would apply instead of state laws.

Also under Amendment L, board members would be limited to three four-year terms for a maximum of 12 years. (Current board members would be eligible to serve three more terms.) And a special committee would be convened to decide how much the board's seven members, considered part-time employees, should be paid.

Unlike other elected officials in Los Angeles, school board candidates have no cap on how much money donors can give them. The result has been races in which five-figure contributions from wealthy individuals or special-interest groups are common.

In a 2003 race, for example, board member Caprice Young received more than $610,000 from a group formed by then-Mayor Richard Riordan. She was defeated by Jon Lauritzen, who received a similar amount from United Teachers Los Angeles, the district's influential union.

In current races for board seats, the union has made $150,000 contributions to incumbents Lauritzen and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and has promised to give them more. Their challengers, meanwhile, are widely expected to raise more than $1 million for their campaigns.

There is no limit to how long members can serve on the board. Julie Korenstein, the board's longest-serving member, has been in office more than 19 years.

"There is a Wild West atmosphere in races for school board," said City Councilman Jose Huizar, the amendment's main backer and a former school board member.

"There needs to be more transparency and disclosure," he said. "And, particularly in education, I think you would want to ensure that new people with fresh ideas were coming in every few terms."

Huizar has firsthand experience with the high stakes of board races. In 2005, he raised more than $330,000 -- much of it from construction-related companies and individuals involved in the school district's massive building program -- for a race in which he ran unopposed.

Board members, many of whom clashed with Huizar during his 4 1/2 years on the board, have chafed against his efforts. Because he is a close ally of Villaraigosa, the councilman's involvement is seen by some board members as yet another attempt to intrude on board territory.

"This is about politics, not principle," said board member David Tokofsky, one of the board's most outspoken critics of Villaraigosa and his long-running push to wrest some control of the district away from the board. Tokofsky decided not to seek reelection next month.

Still, the proposed amendment has backed the board into an awkward position: Those who disagree with part or all of the amendment -- most notably the fact that it does not provide public funds to match contributions from private donors -- do not want to appear to be defending their own self-interest. And those who might otherwise support some or all of the reforms are loath to publicly align themselves with anything coming from Huizar.

"It is a no-win response on any of this," board President Marlene Canter said in declining to reveal whether she supports the amendment. "I am just interested in seeing what the voters have to say."

Compounding the board's frustration is the fact that members lost track of the deadlines to submit an opposition argument and a rebuttal to the argument that has been printed on ballots in support of the amendment.

"We should have been more focused on it and we weren't," said Ed Burke, chief of staff to Lauritzen. "We missed it."

The fact that board member Monica Garcia, a former aide to Huizar and the mayor's lone ally on the board, added her name to the list of people supporting the amendment printed on the ballot has only added to her colleagues' annoyance.

Villaraigosa, too, supports the proposed amendment. "He believes it is a common-sense measure to provide ... appropriate ethical standards," one of his aides wrote in an e-mail.

Amendment L has received relatively scant public attention. Huizar scratched plans for a campaign to promote it after an unexpected challenger caused him to mount his own reelection effort. Nonetheless, polling has showed strong support for the amendment, with more than 75% of those asked saying they were in favor of it, a Huizar aide said.

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