Inglewood School Race Becomes a Tangle of Politics and Education

Times Staff Writer

What might have been a routine runoff race has become a showdown between warring political factions and could pave the way for yet another power shift on this city's strife-torn school board.

Incumbent Rose Mary Benjamin--one of two remaining members of a board faction that lost control in the general election in April--faces challenger Wanda Brown in Tuesday's runoff election, which in some ways also has become a referendum on:

- Mayor Edward Vincent, who supports Brown and backed the election campaigns of the three board members who gained control of the district two months ago. The minority members say Vincent is trying to exert control over the district and its 1,200 jobs.

- Former Supt. Rex Fortune, who was fired by the new majority on the board for reasons it did not disclose. Fortune, who had Benjamin's support, says he was fired for refusing to accede to Vincent's hiring demands.

Vincent has denied any attempt to control the district or to tell Fortune whom to hire.

Lone Dissenter

If Brown wins Tuesday, the governing faction will be overwhelmingly in charge. Former board President William (Tony) Draper would be the lone dissenting voice.

But if Benjamin is reelected, control of the board eventually could swing back to an anti-Vincent faction because one majority member's tenure remains under a legal cloud.

Board member Caroline Coleman, a member of the new majority, recently was indicted on a felony charge of misappropriation of public funds and faces a preliminary hearing June 13. If she is convicted of a felony, state law says she would have to resign her board seat, and a special election would be called.

As a result, Benjamin supporters are concentrating on letter-writing campaigns to the district attorney's office seeking to prevent a deal allowing Coleman to plead guilty or no contest to a misdemeanor as much as they are employing tradiional campaign tactics.

Parent Involvement

Brown, who has never consented to an interview with The Times, did not return repeated phone calls this week. In campaign statements filed with the city clerk's office Brown listed among her goals more parent and community involvement in schools, increased funding, better educational programs and athletic facilities, better board representation and better salaries for teachers.

Brown, 42, manages an accounting business in Inglewood.

Benjamin, 51, said in an interview that she prefers to center her platform on educational issues in spite of the larger political battle surrounding her campaign.

"I know this is becoming a power struggle of who's going to run the school district and the city," she said. "But I'm still trying to focus on education. I believe there have been many improvements in the last four years in Inglewood schools. We're building good partnerships with business and industry, test scores are up, and some of our students are beginning to be recognized throughout the state for outstanding academic achievement.

'Upward Swing'

"This year, Inglewood High School was awarded $49,000 by the state for its improved test scores, and Hillcrest (continuation school) got $3,000. . . . I think that's a remarkable achievement. I believe these achievements are directly related to policies set by the old board."

The one-term incumbent said she found the recent turmoil "particularly tragic because we're on an upward swing for the first time in so many years."

That swing, she said, was because "we were concerned with improving schools rather than concentrating on politics. As long as personalities and power struggles dominate the issues, our children are going to suffer, and that's tragic, because there's so much left to be done."

Among her priorities if reelected, Benjamin said, are increasing options for both college-bound and vocational students, reversing the district's climbing dropout rate, and opening elementary school libraries, which are closed much of the time for lack of funds.

Benjamin, whose three children graduated from Inglewood schools, served 14 years as an instructional aide in the school district and has been known as an independent on the school board in the past.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The district includes Inglewood and the unincorporated area of Ladera Heights.

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