On a recent Thursday afternoon at the local Elks Lodge, 50 places were set for a "Meet the Candidates" luncheon: 50 name tags awaited the lapels of eager voters; 50 orders of Salisbury steak bubbled in the lodge kitchen, 50 dishes of raspberry sherbet were chilled and ready for desert.
But as the event wore on, it gradually became apparent that everyone who came for lunch and information about the upcoming school board and community college trustee races could have had a second helping. The banquet room was half empty, and the candidates themselves made up about 30% of the audience.
Where were the voting masses, yearning to be informed, some of the more than 200,000 registered voters who could make their wishes known on March 19?
"Not here," one candidate grumbled. "No one cares about the race."
Not 'Much of a Race'
With less than a week before greater Long Beach area voters go to the polls to choose two school board members and two community college trustees, few of the 13 candidates are expecting more than the 10% voter turnout seen in the past two elections.
"I don't think it's much of a race," said Gary Goodenough, one of four candidates for the college board seats, as he watched the audience trickle in for the candidates' forum. "I think it's apathy. You just can't get people stimulated. Look at the turnout today--it's the result of more than 800 invitations."
Many candidates and election-watchers contend the apathy is the result of the candidates themselves. There are two positions to be filled on each of the boards, and strong incumbents are seeking reelection.
In the Long Beach Unified School District's 100-year history, no incumbent has ever lost an election, and incumbents Elizabeth Wallace and James Zarifes are likely to continue that tradition.
The district covers nearly 130 square miles, including Long Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Catalina Island and about 60% of Lakewood. It has 79 schools, an annual budget of $221 million and about 62,000 students.
Although about 56% of all district students are members of ethnic minorities, up from 50% in 1981, there has been only one minority school board member in 100 years--Dr. John Kashiwabara, who was elected in 1983.
Cruz Wins Endorsements
This year, the most widely favored candidate outside of the two incumbents is Ramon Cruz, 42, who runs the Educational Opportunity Center at UCLA, which offers academic counseling to minority students.
Cruz has been endorsed by the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, a coalition of local groups called the Council of Long Beach Organizations, the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club, the National Organization for Women, Long Beach Area Citizens Involved and by Joe Saucedo, president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"The biggest problem is that the voters and the citizens in general aren't aware of the poor quality that does exist in our schools today," Cruz said. "In addition, people have given up on our public school system. Their alternative is to put their children in private schools. It's happening in the white community and among middle-income Hispanics and blacks."
Cruz said programs should be created to identify talented students and nurture them through the academic process, with tutoring and efforts to involve parents. In addition, he said, the problems of an increasing dropout rate and decreasing test scores should be addressed.
Ben Lipson, 60, has received almost as many endorsements as Cruz in his campaign for school board. He has been backed by the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club, the National Organization for Women, the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, the City Employees Assn. and Long Beach Area Citizens Involved.
Not Enough Money
Lipson has taught for 34 years--32 of them in the Long Beach district--and he contends that there is not enough money available to implement the sweeping changes being sought in education today. In addition, he said, some new programs do not belong in the schools in the first place.
"We have been forced to be everything to everybody," Lipson said, "and it's just not possible."
Lipson said the most pressing issue facing the school district today is the lack of qualified teachers. "There are relatively few young people entering education today," Lipson said. "One who enters education in Long Beach attains the maximum pay scale in 15 years, at (age) 35 or 36. What's next?
"There has to be a re-examination of the pay structure so that people are attracted to education and stay there."
In contrast, incumbents Wallace and Zarifes are running on what they contend to be the school district's reputation for quality education.
"We have always kept our schools on an even keel," said 58-year-old Wallace, who has been on the school board for the past 17 years. "We have faced crises of major and minor magnitude and met them with common sense and a good administration."
The influx of non-English-speaking students to the district has been met "with a good quality program," and the remaining crisis to be considered, Wallace said, is getting more money from the state to pay for education programs.
"Our students are too important to (be given) a second-class education," she said.
Zarifes, a 53-year-old attorney, said he is running for school board to repay the school district for all of the opportunities it has given him.
"The education I got in the Long Beach Unified School District was excellent," Zarifes said. "It helped me walk through doors that were opened for me. . . . I firmly believe the Long Beach Unified School District at this time is an excellent one."
In the future, Zarifes said, board members must continue to meet the needs of students for whom English is a second language, continue to implement SB 813, the education reform law, and continue trying to get more money from the state.
'Incumbents Always Win'
Keith Grimes, who owns a rare coins and metals investing company, identifies two major issues facing the school board in the future: election reform and the plight of non-English-speaking students.
"What's happening is that historically no one who is not an incumbent has a chance to win a school board election," Grimes said, because the district administration always backs incumbents. "I think everyone has always ignored this election because the incumbents have always won."
Grimes, 37, also believes that stronger bilingual education programs should be created to help the increasing number of children in the district whose primary language is not English.
Four other candidates have been less visible during the campaign:
- Joseph Brooks, 61, is a retired member of the federal Civil Rights Commission and past president of the Long Beach chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Brooks believes that class size should be decreased, the bond between schools and parents should be strengthened and that top administrators should be evaluated on an ongoing basis.
- Cherre McKnight, 37, has been an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for the past 16 years. McKnight believes teachers should be allowed to spend more time teaching rather than keeping records and says standardized test scores need to be raised.
- Jean Linden, 54, is a Long Beach housewife who said she decided to run for school board because she thought it would be a good chance to learn about the school system.
- Kenneth R. Swain, 42, an administrator with Nissan Motor Corp., is considering dropping out of the school board race. "I ran for office as a concerned citizen and a parent, and it requires more than that," Swain said Tuesday. He said he will decide whether to drop out by Friday.
In the Long Beach Community College District Board of Trustees race, even the challengers expect incumbent trustees Donald H. Scott, 72, and Ruth Todd, 65, to clinch the two seats. Gary Goodenough conceded in an interview that the only reason he is running against Scott and Todd is to give them some competition.
"Their (Todd's and Scott's) outlooks agree with mine almost 100%, and they're both competent," said Goodenough, the 35-year-old vice president of a local trucking company. "What we're looking at here is that no one gets a free ride. If Clifford Aguilar (the fourth candidate for the college board) and I weren't running, there wouldn't even be an election."
Aguilar, 64, said he has not even campaigned--even though he thinks educational reforms are needed in the community colleges.
"I'm very interested in running and being elected," said Aguilar, who is executive director of the Spanish American Institute, a social and educational service organization that offers tutoring, career workshops and scholarships to Latino students. "But it looks like it may take more than being interested."
Aguilar said in an interview that he believes students should be better prepared when they graduate from high schools and two-year colleges.
Todd, who has been on the Long Beach Community Colleges Board of Trustees since it was formed in 1978, said she is running "because I enjoy the job. I think college boards keep you young. And I realize the value of a good education."
The only thing Todd would change, she said, would be to increase the amount of time board members lobby the legislature in Sacramento for state education money.
"I'm really very happy with many of the things we're doing," Todd said. "But I do want to do more public relations work in Sacramento. Somehow the state universities and the University of California campuses have the inside track" in obtaining state funding.
Donald H. Scott has also been a trustee since 1978, but his association with Long Beach City College goes back much further. He is a retired professor of Spanish and history and also worked as the head of the history and public service departments and division chairman of the school of social sciences.
To Scott, a 39-year resident of Long Beach, there are no local issues in the community college board race.
"We can't really comment on the funding," Scott said, "because we get our money from the state. And they say we're not transferring enough students, but is that our task?"