Julie Korenstein, the longest-serving Los Angeles school board member ever and a key teachers union ally, announced Thursday that she would not seek reelection, suddenly leaving two pivotal open seats on the seven-member Board of Education.
Her announcement came one day after two-term board member Marlene Canter also announced that she would step down when her term expires next June.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Bill Ouchi, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management who has long been involved in school-reform efforts. "These are two people who have put in unbelievable numbers of hours and have exposed themselves to tremendous personal criticism and pressures because they really care about the children and the schools. It's a changing of the guard."
In recent years, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District has become a battleground for control between forces promoting different visions of reform. The main players have been the teachers union, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and supporters of charter schools, which are independent of direct district control.
Korenstein, 65, who has represented portions of the San Fernando Valley for the last 22 years, is regarded as United Teachers Los Angeles' closest board ally. She was likely to be targeted by well-financed opponents, but said she felt no pressure to bow out.
"I've accomplished a lot with a great deal of energy and fortitude, but it's time now," she said, noting that she was a mother of three when she was first elected and is now a grandmother of four.
During her tenure, Korenstein focused early on environmental issues affecting schools, and she also pushed for phonics-based reading programs that have since become almost universally accepted.
But having seen many reform plans come and go, she grew skeptical of initiatives, including the charter school movement, and distrustful of sweeping change in general.
"In losing Julie, we are losing long-term institutional memory," said Yvonne Chan, founder of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a charter school in Korenstein's district. "But she's a worrywart. Everything has to be explained many times and it has to be perfect. So it delays reform efforts and pushes away risk-takers who are willing to let the horse out the door instead of beating the horse to death."
Korenstein was well-known for asking many questions, including some that restated previous ones.
"In the best sense of the word, she's a bulldog," said Michael O'Sullivan, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the administrators union. "She will not vote on something until she's had her questions answered."
The six-term board member frequently became a defender of the institution and a critic of funding levels she considered far too low. She also relied on a thin staff, donating the extra dollars instead to help local schools.
Korenstein began in 1968 as a parent volunteer before becoming a district teacher. She also founded a tutoring service for at-risk youth before being elected to the board in 1987. The boundaries of her Valley-based district have changed over time; they now include much of the north and east Valley.
That area has seen an infusion of Latino leadership in recent years, and a Latino candidate is almost certain to emerge among the front-runners.
Unlike Korenstein, Canter, 60, was never closely aligned with the unions or any power bloc. Canter nonetheless won her colleagues' support for two terms as board president because of a reputation for conciliation and fairness.
"Marlene led that board through some of its most difficult times, including Mayor Villaraigosa's effort to seize control," Ouchi said. "She was totally and completely devoted to maintaining the independence of LAUSD from mayoral control. She felt it was her duty. She lobbied probably every member of the Legislature. She was there mano-a-mano with decision-makers making her case."
L.A. Unified finally prevailed over the mayor in court, but the mayor then funded successful candidates for the board. Canter quickly forged common ground with the new members over supporting charter schools and charter-like freedoms for traditional schools.
Canter also was known for her efforts on school nutrition.
"It's because of Marlene that our kids are not eating junk food anymore," said Caprice Young, a former school board member who until recently headed the California Charter Schools Assn.
Canter worked especially closely with former Supt. Roy Romer and became associated with his school construction efforts and his standardized reading program for elementary schools. She also played an instrumental role in the hiring of current Supt. David L. Brewer, a retired Navy admiral with no formal experience in public education.
For some board critics, both incumbents represented gradualism at best.
"To me, Korenstein was a supporter of the status quo," said Mike Piscal, the chief executive of ICEF Public Schools, a local charter school organization. "Her belief in the system is staggering to me. It's not working. Why do you keep fighting to maintain it?"
Piscal termed Canter "a sometime champion of reform. Canter did not fight hard enough."
Korenstein also ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles City Council and wouldn't rule out another try at elected office after her term expires.
"I've got another eight months on the board, and after that I'll see," she said.