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L.A. school district benefactor puts her money where her heart is

Melanie Lundquist of Palos Verdes Estates is optimistic that her promise to write a $5-million check each of the next 10 years will result in wider school reforms nationally.

August 21, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Imagine all the things you could buy if you had a spare $50 million under the mattress.

A yacht. A jet. A nice little getaway in Hawaii, and why not in New York, Rome and Paris as well?

A Palos Verdes Estates woman named Melanie Lundquist happened to have the extra $50 million, but she bought none of the above.

Instead, she called Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2007 and told him she wanted to give the money to some of the lowest-performing schools in Los Angeles Unified. She promised to write a $5-million check each of the next 10 years for his Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which took control of 10 campuses a year ago as part of the mayor's boast that he could do better than the district.

But those improvements are easier to promise than to produce, as this week's release of standardized test scores revealed, with the results a mixed bag of modest gains and just as many disappointments. Several weeks ago I wrote a column about teachers at eight of the 10 schools giving the partnership a "no-confidence" vote. They said they didn't have the decision-making power they were promised and that essentially, one bureaucracy had supplanted another.

At the time, I wondered how Lundquist was feeling about her investment. Give her a call, suggested Marshall Tuck, chief executive of the mayor's partnership.

And so I did.

I don't know if she's upbeat by nature, but Lundquist might as well have had pom poms the day we met at the Farmer's Market for lunch. She knew this would take time, she said, and neither the skepticism of teachers nor the lackluster test scores have given her pause.

"I believe this will become a model for national reform," said Lundquist, whose husband, Richard, owns a real estate development company whose holdings include the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco and numerous commercial buildings across Southern California.

So what exactly was the reason for a gift to schools that many have written off as irreparably broken?

"I went to public schools K through 12," said Lundquist, who went to Grant. Her husband also attended public schools in Los Angeles. "I got a free education, and there are 50 teachers I could name right now who were some of my best friends, and even after I graduated, they continued to be friends.

"I had a science teacher in 10th, 11th and 12th who would stay until 6 o'clock, working in the lab, and then drive all of us home. I've always regarded a good education as a foundation, without which you're marginalized and locked out of the economy."

And far too many kids, she said, simply don't have access to schools as good as the ones she attended.

Lundquist graduated from USC as a speech pathologist, but after marrying Richard, she decided to turn to philanthropy, inspired by Wallis Annenberg, among others. While waiting for a doctor's appointment one day, Lundquist read a Vanity Fair article titled "Rebel With a Purse," about New York City philanthropist Irene Diamond, and she became determined to support good causes.

Which ones?

Lots of them, and the Lundquists send fat checks here and there each year. But Melanie found her true passion after seeing Villaraigosa in 2005 at a political event and asking him what he'd focus on if he became mayor.

"He said 'education.' I said, 'Really, well if you decide to run for mayor, call me.' Twenty-four hours later, he called."

Yep, that sounds like our mayor. The Lundquists donated to his successful campaign and later to the school board members sponsored by Villaraigosa, who put her in touch with Tuck and Ray Cortines, the current superintendent, who was working for the mayor at the time.

They met on Feb. 9, 2007, Lundquist's birthday, and her present was to be swept up by their ambition and high hopes for better schools. In July, the partnership was launched. In September, the Lundquists made their pledge.

"It was incredible," Tuck said. "They're good human beings, but this was on a scale that was unheard of."

In total, the partnership has raised $65 million, with a scattering of donations in the $1-million range, but nothing approaching the Lundquist pledge.

I asked Richard how they arrived at $50 million. Did Melanie open the bidding at $100 million and he countered with $1 million?

He laughed and said no. The only indecision on their part was whether to give $25 million over five years or $50 million over 10 years, and that was quickly resolved.

But they didn't want to just sign checks and drop them in the mail. They wanted to be personally involved, and their division of labor went something like this:

Melanie would be the hands-on Lundquist, attending strategy sessions, visiting schools, getting to know principals, teachers and students.

"And Richard's job is to earn the $50 million," she said.

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