Election heavy hitter Riordan weighs in: more charter schools and more tents for homeless

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a major presence in Tuesday’s elections, has strong opinions about local schools and options for helping the homeless.

On the homeless front, he said he reluctantly sees more tents and more sleeping bags as the most viable solution. Riordan has endorsed Measure S, which would strictly limit development in Los Angeles for two years. The effect of Measure S on efforts to house the homeless is being debated across the city.

As for education, he said the L.A. school system continues to fail students. He’s putting his money on charters and board members who support them, although he’d also like to help teachers find affordable housing.

Riordan has donated $1 million to a political action committee whose sole purpose is to defeat school board President Steve Zimmer, part of a strategy to get a board majority allied with supporters of charter schools. He also gave $1 million to a charter advocacy group. It’s funneling money into the three contests for L.A. school board seats, including Zimmer’s District 4, which includes the Westside and part of the west San Fernando Valley.

Zimmer is seeking a third term and had won Riordan’s endorsement in the past, but the wealthy businessman said he’s dissatisfied with Zimmer’s follow-through. It’s time for an upgrade and to shake things up in the district, Riordan said.

Riordan sits on the board of local charter schools and has been involved in education philanthropy for decades.

“The bureaucracy is far worse at the schools than at the charter schools,” he said. “The main thing is having transparency of what’s right and what’s wrong. The number of the people in the bureaucracy — what do they accomplish for the schools?”

As an example, he said he recently tried to jump-start projects that would provide affordable housing for teachers, but L.A. Unified’s response was sluggish.

“I don’t include the teachers in the word bureaucracy. But you do come down to the teachers,” he said. “How about transparency in how many teachers are in the rubber room?”

Riordan was referring to the number of teachers on paid suspension because they are under investigation. That number ballooned to 322 in the wake of a high-profile arrest in 2012. The current number is 109 in a workforce of 25,124 instructors, according to the district. L.A. Unified attributes the reduction to the hiring of an investigation team and a better working relationship with the teachers union.

The former mayor said that’s not enough progress: “If you were on the school board, wouldn’t you figure out how to get rid of that 100 no matter how much you had to pay them or whatever?”

Riordan said that when he served as mayor, from 1993 to 2001, he used to identify people who needed to be removed from city employment, only to be told that it would take too long or never happen at all.

“I would tell people, ‘You have two months to get it done,’ and they always found a way,” Riordan said. “We need to get rid of these people and we want to bring on these good teachers.”

He said the school board also should make it easier for charters to get access to classroom space on district campuses.

“They should get honest and share some of that space, and they can charge for it, as far as I know,” Riordan said. “They can share everything. They shouldn’t be against each other. They should be for each other because it’s all for the children.”

In the Zimmer race, Riordan is endorsing Nick Melvoin, the son of friend, Brentwood neighbor and Hollywood producer Jeff Melvoin. In his 2014 autobiography, Riordan recounts hearing about challenges the younger Melvoin faced during a two-year stint as a teacher in Watts, including being laid off — along with other young teachers without seniority — and later hired back.

The tale inspired Riordan to help launch a lawsuit, in which Melvoin participated, to limit the impact of seniority-based layoffs at an individual school. It eventually led to a settlement.

Riordan said he also likes the other charter-endorsed candidate in District 4, Allison Holdorff Polhill. But he subtracts a few points because the charter she helped run, Palisades Charter High School, has a union contract. Riordan said the contract makes it too difficult to fire teachers, although he said the school appears to be performing better than L.A. Unified-run campuses.

On the city front, Riordan backs Measure S despite the claims of critics that its provisions would limit, if not suspend, construction of housing for the homeless. The measure imposes a two-year moratorium on all real estate projects that require a General Plan amendment, zone change or increase in allowable height. Most homeless advocates and city officials oppose Measure S.

In a dig at development practices under current Mayor Eric Garcetti, Riordan said it hasn’t helped that “Garcetti’s buddies have bought up all the properties.”

“The city says it has all this extra land for the homeless and I don’t believe them,” Riordan said. Even parking lots in skid row command prices that are “astronomical,” he said.

Riordan said that his charitable foundation has provided tents and sleeping bags to the homeless, and that approach is probably the most pragmatic solution within reach.

The city, he said, also should invest in centers where the homeless can shower, receive medication and receive other services.

“But as far as actually finding buildings they can live in, which our beloved mayor talks about, that is not realistic,” he said.

Riordan also opposes homeless encampments, whether they are officially set up or informally established by the homeless, because they become a magnet for drug dealing and other crimes.

Instead, “let them find their own places on the streets,” he said. “It’s an incredible problem.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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