Shocked by the firing of the Inglewood school superintendent and fearful that turmoil in the school district would lower property values, Ladera Heights voters made a striking turnaround when they helped sweep school board incumbent Rose Mary Benjamin to victory in last week's runoff election.
That was the assessment of Ladera civic leaders and Inglewood political observers after Ladera cast nearly 92% of its votes for a candidate it had overwhelmingly rejected just two months ago.
More than doubling voter turnout in each of the area's six precincts, Ladera voters cast 769 ballots for Benjamin in the runoff, compared to a mere 84 votes for her in the April primary. The Ladera vote for challenger Wanda Brown fell to 98 votes in the runoff from 141 in April. Citywide, Benjamin led Brown by a 3-1 margin in the runoff. In the primary, Brown got 45.2% of the vote citywide and Benjamin 32.3%.
Ladera Heights is an unincorporated area north of Inglewood that is included in the city's school district. In the primary, the Ladera Heights Civic Assn. supported Ladera resident James Cousar against Benjamin and Brown. Cousar led the six Ladera precincts with 200 votes, but came in third in district-wide balloting.
"I've never seen anything like it," Deputy City Clerk Veronica Watro said of the difference in voting patterns between the two elections. "It's very unusual to have such an increase from the primary to the runoff, particularly when there's only one school board seat at stake. It's even more unusual to see such an overwhelming turnaround in the vote."
But to many in Ladera, much more was at stake than a school board seat.
Ladera Heights, an affluent, racially integrated community, boasts some of the highest-testing schools in the district. Those schools, many say, are integral to maintaining the area's high property values.
"This election wasn't really about Rose Mary Benjamin," said Frank Abell, a Ladera resident and longtime member of the civic association. "It wasn't that everybody fell in love with her all of a sudden. She was kind of wishy-washy on the board. That's why we supported Cousar.
"What we were afraid of is what's going on in the school district. I think the firing of the superintendent without giving any reason wised Ladera up. It made them realize that even if they didn't have kids in school, they still had a stake in the school system. Nothing pulls property values down faster than a bad school district."
Don Hellwig, president of the association, agreed that fear of falling property values "definitely was an issue." The association endorsed Benjamin in the runoff and sent out mailers to residents urging them to vote. "When people pay $250,000 for a house, they want to make sure they're moving into a solid community with good schools," he said. "I think the shenanigans of the school board since the primary convinced people here that the district was threatened, schools in Ladera were threatened, and that they had to take this election seriously."
Supt. Rex Fortune, a Ladera resident, was fired in April when a new majority came to power after the primary. Since then, the majority, which many have said is part of a political machine controlled by Mayor Edward Vincent, has refused to give any reasons for the ouster. Members of the majority consistently have refused interviews with The Times. Vincent has denied that he exerts any control over the school board.
Wanda Brown, who got an endorsement and other aid from Vincent, would have added a fourth vote to the majority on the five-member board.
The majority's power is threatened by a recall movement against board President William Dorn and a felony charge against member Caroline Coleman. A preliminary hearing will be held this week on a charge that Coleman misappropriated $1,500 in district funds when she flew to New Orleans for an education conference in November, 1983. Officials of the conference say they have no evidence that she registered for the event or attended any sessions.
Ken Gossett, a longtime observer of city politics, said the threat of falling property values and fear of a growing political machine was felt in Inglewood as well as Ladera.
"Even though Ladera came out overwhelmingly for Benjamin, it was not a Ladera election. This election was not the affluent against the poor, or black against white," Gossett said. "I think there's a citywide revolt against politics in the school board and machine politics in general. It just happened to coincide with the runoff election, so we saw direct evidence of that revolt."
Runoff returns on Tuesday showed Benjamin polling a consistent 80% against Brown in all precincts, although an absentee vote of 480 ballots for Brown brought Benjamin's final margin to about 75%.
In spite of the big Ladera vote, turnout district-wide was only 12% of registered voters, compared to 15% in April. In an interview Thursday, Vincent said he wanted to congratulate Benjamin on an "outstanding victory."
"What can I say? They worked very hard and it showed," he said. "I don't bear any grudges. They did some fine work. I just hope we can all sit down and work things out."
Vincent went on to defend the board majority's ouster of Fortune and their refusal to give any reasons."
'No Big Deals'
"I think this business about the firing of the superintendent has gotten a little ridiculous. I don't understand all the uproar. People with contracts get fired every day. It's no big deal. If Paul Eckles combs his hair the wrong way, we could fire him tomorrow and we wouldn't have to give any reasons. That's what happens when you're on contract."
Eckles is Inglewood's city manager.
Vincent said the board had a "long list of reasons--that I had nothing to do with, by the way--and they are under the advice of an attorney not to talk about them because the issue is now in litigation."
Fortune has filed a $3.5-million claim against the district and the board majority members individually for breach of contract.
Inglewood Councilman Daniel K. Tabor, however, last week issued a letter to the board members, demanding that they make their reasons known or reinstate the superintendent.
"I can't stay neutral any longer," Tabor said. "The public trust is being ignored. This is not their money they're dealing with; it's the taxpayers' money. That means they have a responsibility to the taxpayers to tell them what they are risking the district's money on. If they have a legal case, we deserve to know it. If they don't, we want to know it before the district gets dragged into court."