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A strong L.A. school board

L.A. voters have several good choices. We pick three, and hope they make students their priority.

February 07, 2009

Voters in the Los Angeles Unified School District can choose between uniformly high-caliber new candidates for the school board in the March 3 election. What a shame, then, that the one unopposed candidate is also the weakest -- incumbent board President Monica Garcia.

Single-candidate school races could become a more common scenario in Los Angeles now that mayoral politics have become a factor. The big player in school board elections used to be the unions, especially United Teachers Los Angeles. In recent years, though, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, with his impressive fundraising prowess, has managed to put a mayor-allied majority on the board. And when the two forces align behind the same candidates, as they have in this year's two contested races, it takes an opponent with moxie and unusual financial resources to mount a significant campaign.

At this point, it is unclear whether the school district has benefited from having a mayor-allied majority in charge. It is a more purposeful board, but also a more political one. Its tendencies to play to the TV cameras and micromanage haven't waned, and the unions hold at least as much sway as ever.

The dominance of these two forces also has brought about a change in the conversation about schools. The candidates who enjoy mayoral and union support tend to talk about social welfare more than about education. Their concerns are valid -- poverty and dangerous neighborhoods are real barriers to learning. But the board must resist a growing tendency to emphasize peripheral issues and worry about union priorities, and instead should remember that consistently good education, which it is far from providing, is a social justice issue too. It is the board's most important job.

With this precept in mind, these are our recommendations for the school board:

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District 2: Monica Garcia

We did not endorse Garcia, a staunch Villaraigosa ally, in her race two years ago because of what we saw as a lack of independent thinking. This is one of those times when we're sad to have been proved right.

Garcia has been too eager to advance the mayor's interests in the schools over the educational needs of children. She pushed for the poorly planned and padded $7-billion school construction bond that passed in November, which gave the district an excess of funding for buildings while it's in the poorhouse for instructional programs. And she has led the charge on other initiatives that have combined to increase the district's expenses as enrollment, the main source of revenue, has been falling.

Even more troubling has been Garcia's tendency to politicize the board. Her mayor-backed allies are kept in the know; the "out group" is left in the dark. She commendably led the ouster of former Supt. David L. Brewer, but caused needless embarrassment and hard feelings by trying to rush his termination without talking to key board members. Garcia has this seat wrapped up, but to win respect as an elected leader, she needs to rethink her approach and emerge from the mayor's shadow.

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District 4: Mike Stryer

Marlene Canter has been by far the most child-centered board member during the last two years, and has displayed the rare strength to resist political and labor pressure. Luckily for her district, both of her would-be replacements are up to the job, though in different ways. We think the stronger of the two is Mike Stryer.

Longtime community activist Steve Zimmer, backed by the mayor and the teachers union, is a teacher who runs an intervention program for at-risk students at Marshall High School in Silver Lake. His passion for helping troubled students and their families is genuine; he understands their needs and has valuable things to say about reforming teacher training.

But Stryer, a teacher for six years at Fairfax High School with a previous career in international finance, has the focus and skills the board needs most right now. He is intent on improving instruction in worthwhile ways -- ending social promotion in middle schools, providing meaningful electives, doing intensive intervention in 9th grade (when many students drop out), and addressing the inconsistent quality of teachers. He also has the intention, and the budget expertise, to ask sharp questions about how money is being spent.

Outnumbered on the board, Stryer would find it hard to advance his own priorities, but that's all the more reason to elect him. His voice, and the challenges he will make to established ways of doing business, are badly needed.

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District 6: Nury Martinez

We endorsed Louis Pugliese, an independent-minded teacher trainer, two years ago, in a different district. But he has a stronger competitor in this race: Nury Martinez, the candidate endorsed by the teachers union and the mayor.

Martinez, the director of a community environmental organization, has established a solid reputation as a San Fernando councilwoman. Her understanding of grass-roots issues, including her focus on getting parents more involved in schools, is a valuable byproduct of her years in that arena. But Martinez has built her campaign around social rather than education concerns. Should she win, we look to her to broaden her agenda. Children need and deserve safe passage to school, as Martinez points out. Once inside, however, they need the support of strong curriculum and committed teachers.

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