5 Spirited School Board Races Shaping Up : 19 Seek Opportunity to Grapple With Variety of Tough District Problems

Times Staff Writer

Five of the seven seats on the Los Angeles school board are up for election next month, and spirited contests are taking shape in all five districts.

There are 19 candidates on the April 14 ballot.

The winners can look forward to grappling with a variety of tough problems, which at times could make their $24,000 salaries seem like small compensation indeed. Among them:

- A financial squeeze precipitated by the budget crunch in Sacramento, which will require the board to figure how to make do with less than enough.

- A running wrangle over salaries with United Teachers-Los Angeles that has led the teachers union to endorse challengers instead of incumbents in two districts.

- A student population that is growing far faster than schools can be built to accommodate it, forcing the board to take the unpopular step of putting more campuses on a year-round schedule.

- A succession of scandals, including the conviction of an inner-city elementary school teacher on 30 counts relating to child molestation, and the recent arrest of four school system employees charged with stealing at least $500,000 in money and supplies.

Accompanying these, of course, are the chronic problems of running a huge urban school system: high drop-out rates, poor academic achievement by many minority students and complicated legal disputes about desegregation and discrimination with black and Latino organizations. Starting in July, the board also will be learning to deal with a new chief executive--a successor to Supt. Harry Handler is expected to be chosen in the next few weeks.

Sometimes the sheer size of the school system is enough to make it seem unmanageable to board members. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation's second-largest public school system. Its budget this year totals $3.2 billion--almost $1 billion more than that of the city of Los Angeles.

There are 618 schools and 590,000 students. An additional 76,000 students are expected in the next five years. About 83% of the system's students are members of minority groups--56% Latino, 19% black and 8% Asian.

While there is considerable disagreement by the candidates on some issues, there is apparent consensus that Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed 1987-88 budget spells trouble. The governor is seeking a very modest rise in overall state spending on education, and cuts in a variety of specific programs that will hit particularly hard in Los Angeles.

The most severely affected would be integration programs, enrichment classes for gifted students and state-mandated programs such as proficiency testing and storage of immunization records.

There are additional money problems involved in the conflict between the school administration and the teachers union, United Teachers-Los Angeles. UTLA officials, expecting some lean years ahead in state financing, are holding out for the largest possible salary increase this year, and there are heated differences between union and school system about how much money is available for teacher salaries.

With the two sides at loggerheads, UTLA has decided to abandon its support of board president Rita Walters and board member John Greenwood and to endorse their respective opponents, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Warren Furutani. UTLA has also endorsed Julie Korenstein, a candidate for the open West San Fernando Valley school board seat.

In addition to the endorsement, the union plans to offer these candidates the kind of money and related campaign support that can make a big difference in the low-turnout circumstances that are typical of school board elections.

Union President Wayne Johnson said UTLA will focus for the most part on defeating the two incumbents. The organization plans to pump $15,000 to $20,000 into each race. On the three weekends before the election, UTLA hopes to have at least 400 of its members walking precincts for the challengers. The union also plans to directly contact 10,000 members that it estimates live in the two districts to encourage them to vote for the challengers.

"It is important for us to send a message to people who used us to get into office that you don't take our money and then turn your backs on us," Johnson said.

While the school system's problems are great, not all of the recent news from the Los Angeles schools has been bad. In the last five years, overall scores on standardized tests have inched upward. Last fall, construction began on the first school to be built in the district in 15 years. Innovative teaching techniques, such as the award-winning television show "Homework Hotline," have been introduced.

The board has implemented tough expulsion policies for on-campus possession of drugs and weapons and for violent acts against teachers. Los Angeles also has been a leader in the state education reform movement. The board was one of the first to establish the C-average rule for participation in extracurricular activities, to toughen graduation requirements and to lengthen the school day.

School board elections are officially nonpartisan. This means that candidates run without party labels, but it doesn't mean the races are nonpolitical. Many area politicians and political groups take an active part on behalf of various candidates, making endorsements or contributions, or providing other forms of campaign support.

To win, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the votes cast. In districts where no candidate wins a clear majority on April 14, there will be a runoff in June between the two top vote-getters. Here, briefly, is a district-by-district look at how the election is shaping up:

District 1: After eight years as a trustee, Walters is facing what may be her toughest challenger in Ridley-Thomas.

Ridley-Thomas, 39, is the executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is a well-known community activist and a co-chair of the city's Black Leadership Education Coalition. The district cuts a swath across the southern portion of the city. About 60% of its residents are black.

Ridley-Thomas, the best-financed of three challengers, has been hammering on the lack of improvements in academic achievement by black students, lack of parent-school coalitions to help improve quality of the local schools and continued high rates of campus violence. And he is not shy about giving examples on how incumbent Walters has "lost touch" with constituents.

Walters, 56, is countering by citing her accomplishments. These include, she said, the establishment of the C-average rule, creation of the Jordan-Drew Medical Magnet High School, implementation of a special teacher hiring program that places instructors in hard-to-fill inner-city classrooms, and an affirmative action program that has doubled the number of black administrators in high-level positions.

Two other candidates, while they have not yet shown evidence of the financial support needed to mount a serious challenge, also have solid credentials. Annie N. Richardson has been an active participant in parents groups in the district. Dorothy Rugley, who has run against Walters twice before, is a member of the district's Black Education Commission.

District 3: More than 70 languages are spoken in this district, which runs west from downtown through Hollywood. Residents come from a wide range of economic backgrounds and political viewpoints.

It is the district with the severest overcrowding, as a result of which more children are bused out of the area to other schools than from any other region in the school system.

The campaign is a rematch of the 1983 race in which then-challenger Jackie Goldberg handily defeated appointed incumbent Tony Trias. This time Trias, 54, is the challenger who is trying to upset incumbent Goldberg, 42.

Some of the issues of the 1983 campaign have also returned--year-round schools and how to alleviate crowded campus conditions.

These problems, however, may be overshadowed by two new issues. First, the school system, attempting to address the overcrowding problem, has invoked its right of eminent domain to acquire property to build new schools. Scores of area residents are angry over the school system's property appraisal, notification and purchasing procedures, and their numbers may increase as the the property acquisition program expands.

The second dispute has been over the establishment of school health clinics that, among other services, would dispense contraceptives. Goldberg was one of the authors of a proposal to create the health clinic program. Los Angeles High School, located in the 3rd District, is to be the site of one of the first clinics.

Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony has condemned the clinics and called on Catholics to fight against them. Trias has taken a stand against the campus facilities. According to Father John Moretta, head of the Archdiocese Task Force on School Clinics, the church has no plans to become active in the campaign but, he said, "I'm glad to hear there are candidates who are against the clinic."

Also a candidate for Goldberg's seat is Howard O. Watts, a disabled veteran who has been a gadfly in recent years at board meetings.

District 4: Seven candidates from the West San Fernando Valley are vying in this special election to complete the final two years of a term begun by David Armor, who resigned last year.

After Armor's departure, board members appointed Tom Bartman to represent the district until next month's elections. Bartman, who was the West Valley representative from 1980 to 1985, pledged not to run for the post this year.

The West Valley has been a center of opposition to any increases in the number of year-round schools. Parents in the area find year-round proposals particularly vexing when 19 schools in the Valley have been closed in recent years because of low enrollment. The administration now proposes to reopen only one of the closed Valley schools.

While no candidate can really be considered a favorite at this point, four have shown early signs of raising money for a concerted campaign. Julie Korenstein, a coordinator of student volunteer programs at Chatsworth High School and an activist in Democratic politics, has received the teachers union endorsement and has the support of many Valley liberals. The other three are considered more conservative: George St. Johns, a former aide to Republican state Sen. Ed Davis of Valencia; Bunny Field, an adviser and associate of East Valley board member Roberta Weintraub, and Barbara Romey, who has been prominent in the fight against year-round schools.

Also on the ballot are businessman and former teacher Mark Isler, attorney Douglas J. Wolf and Catholic school teacher Marilynn Mayer Neville.

District 5: This Eastside seat is being vacated by Larry Gonzalez, who decided late last year not to run for reelection while he made an unsuccessful attempt to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

Three candidates are vying to represent the predominantly Latino district that stretches from Highland Park to Huntington Park: Leticia Quezada, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District; Raul Ruiz, a professor at California State University, Northridge, and Frank Tamayo, a high school administrator.

Quezada, 32, has put together a well-financed campaign and has garnered several important endorsements. She has received money from two prominent Eastside political power brokers who have been at odds in many recent elections, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre and state Sen. Art Torres.

Ruiz, 44, ran in the 1983 school board race and finished third. He ran a student newspaper in 1969 and 1970 when students staged walkouts at Eastside high schools, and he still has many grass-root contacts on the Eastside.

Issues being debated by the candidates include the future of bilingual education, charges that money is not being evenly allocated to schools, anger over proposals to change to a different year-round calendar at some schools and worries over high dropout rates and low achievement levels.

District 7: John Greenwood, who has represented this most southern district for eight years, faces his toughest opponent in Warren Furutani, a UCLA administrator.

Furutani, 40, has already raised $51,000 for the race, more than any other school board candidate, including incumbents. Greenwood, 42, is emphasising his role in many board successes, such as teacher staffing projects and establishment of campus day care programs.

The 7th District stretches from Watts to San Pedro. It includes several independent cities such as Lomita, Gardena, Carson and South Gate. Ethnically, Asians make up 12% of the district, blacks 35%, Latinos, 40% and whites 13%.

Exasperation over year-round school proposals and feelings that communities lack control over neighborhood schools have led to creation of secession movements in Lomita and Gardena. In South Gate, parents want to retain existing year-round calendars instead of converting to new schedules being promoted by the administration.

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