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L.A. Schools Election: It’s a Three-Way Tug of War

Times Staff Writer

High in the chaparral-covered hills above Malibu, a world away from the urban gang warfare, poverty and overcrowding that ravages so many Los Angeles public schools, Topanga Canyon Elementary School has its own variety of troubles.

Children can’t get across the road.

New development is pouring more fast-moving traffic down the two-lane mountain highway and children must dodge cars to get to school. School district and county officials say a left turn lane at the school entrance might help, but they rule out a crossing guard or traffic light because it could cause pile-ups on the curvy road.

However, parents like Michelle Johnson are not convinced and complain that the community has “been sitting around waiting for a solution” for too long.

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The crossing guard controversy--which reared its head at a school board candidates’ debate in the canyon last week--is a tiny droplet in a vast sea of problems facing the sprawling 708-square mile, 646-school Los Angeles Unified School District.

Neighborhood Concerns

But it is also a reminder that even in big elections in the nation’s second largest school system, parents want candidates to deliver on their neighborhood concerns.

The approaching April 11 school board election is a significant one. Three of the board’s seven seats are up, and the 22,000-member teachers union hopes to put in place a board majority more sympathetic to its demands for higher salaries and for more say for teachers in how schools are run.

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In a sense, this is two side-by-side campaigns. They seem to weave together and pull apart depending on the forum, the audience and the issues. On the district level, the candidates are choosing up sides in an intense power struggle between teachers and district administrators--two groups providing much of the financial fuel for the campaigns.

But parents irate over the lack of a crossing guard, the size of their first-grader’s class, the loss of a music program, a shooting at a junior high or the out-of-our-area students being bused in are pressuring candidates to make commitments to fix their problem, in their school.

What will be important for the whole district is how the votes fall in Topanga Canyon and a wide swath of politically active, middle- and upper-class communities stretching from the Chatsworth foothills, south across the Santa Monica Mountains and out into the coastal flatlands toward Westchester, the territory embodied in Districts 2 and 4.

‘Tilting Election’

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“It’s a very important . . . tilting election,” said board President Roberta Weintraub.

Frustrated by an inability to win the wages and other demands it has on the bargaining table, United Teachers-Los Angeles is hoping to get a fourth ally on the board that will tilt things its way. The union has two close allies it helped elect two years ago, West San Fernando Valley representative Julie Korenstein and Harbor Area representative Warren Furutani. A third vote on many issues has been Central City representative Jackie Goldberg, a teacher who ran her 1983 campaign out of the union’s headquarters.

This year, UTLA is pouring money and manpower into two decisive campaigns. One is Korenstein’s reelection race. A former district teacher, Korenstein is seeking her first full four-year term. She is struggling against formidable challenges from a popular school principal, Gerald Horowitz, and conservative activist Barbara Romey, who is allied with leaders of the Valley’s old anti-busing political coalition.

The more pivotal contest, however, could be in the West Los Angeles district that extends from Topanga Canyon and West Hollywood to Los Angeles International Airport. Two-term incumbent Alan Gershman is facing a well-organized, union-backed challenge from Mark Slavkin, a young, Democratic activist who is a deputy to Westside Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman.

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Neutral on Third Seat

(A third seat will be decided in the east San Fernando Valley. But the union has remained neutral in that contest, where veteran board member Weintraub appears likely to overcome a challenge from Barry Pollack, a physician-screenwriter who has been active in efforts to block year-round schools.)

The teachers union’s 1987 gains with Korenstein and Furutani were offset by a failed effort to unseat Rita Walters, a popular, well-entrenched board member from South Los Angeles. That year in the April primary and June runoff elections, UTLA and its affiliates made about $180,000 in political contributions--cash, consultants, printing, polls. In addition, it helped provide hundreds of classroom teachers to man phones and walk precincts and get out the vote.

The union’s money and volunteers are increasingly potent because the number of voters needed to sway a school board contest is steadily declining. Four years ago, in these same Valley and Westside districts, only 34.7% of the eligible voters cast ballots, down from nearly 57% in 1973.

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Even with new voter-approved restrictions on campaign contributions from groups like UTLA, union leaders hope to raise at least $50,000 for Korenstein and Slavkin by encouraging teachers to make individual contributions. And many believe the large numbers of campaign volunteers the union can muster in the closing weeks will be more important under the new limits.

Alarmed at the prospect of a board majority allied to the teachers union, many school district administrators--principals, assistant principals and central office managers--are supporting Gershman and Horowitz and, based on interviews and campaign finance reports, are contributing thousands of dollars of their own. These administrators worry that, given the intensity of recent UTLA attacks on “high-paid district bureaucrats,” their salary increases, promotional opportunities and authority could be undercut.

“We are concerned that the union seems to have taken on the task of electing and removing board members that don’t meet the standards they are setting,” said Walker Brown, executive director of a 1,500-member group of district managers and supervisors.

UTLA President Wayne Johnson, a savvy, combative former Hamilton High School teacher who has increased membership and re-energized the union in recent years, is straightforward about the union’s plan.

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“From the teachers’ point of view, it is one big race,” he said. “We really need both” the Korenstein and Slavkin races. “We want a board more willing to look at things from the teacher point of view.”

Denies Intentions

Johnson denies UTLA is out to control the board. “By helping them you have some access,” he said, meaning the union may be able to “massage a few things around to get them more the way you like them.”

Some of the things the teachers would like include:

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* A better wage offer. The school board has offered a 20% increase over three years. Teachers are asking 21% over two years. The union, with some support from its newest allies on the board, insists there is money for a larger pay offer in the funds wasted on a buildup of unnecessary management. The board majority--and in particular Gershman--deny this and warn $80 million in budget cuts, including many instructional programs dear to parents, will be needed just to finance the pay offer already on the table.

* Sharing authority. Both the board and the union say they want to move the district toward a more decentralized system of management. But they have been unable to agree on details, such as how to divide decision-making authority over local budgets, curriculum and discipline policies among teachers, parents and principals. The union wants teachers, as the primary instructional professionals, to have a majority of votes on new neighborhood school councils. Many principals and administrators argue they, as the managers responsible for the schools, should have at least equal say with parents and teachers.

* Mandatory union payments. One-third of the district’s teachers do not belong to the union. UTLA has argued for years that all teachers should pay union fees because the union provides them representation and services. Critics fear such a fee would give the union more money and influence and some teachers complain they would be forced to help finance a union they do not support philosophically.

Out in the western neighborhoods of the district, these labor-management struggles tend to evoke less interest than local concerns.

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West Valley and Westside schools are arguably the best the city has to offer--measured by test scores, parent involvement, experience of teaching staffs and safety of campuses. But many active parents, who help shape public opinion through neighborhood grapevines, are not happy. There is a widespread perception among parents in communities like Granada Hills, Tarzana, Topanga, the Pacific Palisades, Westwood and Mar Vista that their schools are being drained of resources and “leveled down” by a massive district struggling with its inner-city problems.

“I feel some children in certain schools, their education is being sacrificed to give special programs to other schools,” said Susan Nissman, who has a third-grader at Topanga Canyon School and heads a parent Booster Club that raised $30,000 last year to maintain teacher aides and library, art and physical education programs. “I do resent having to pay for teacher aides.”

There also is distrust of proposals and policies that flow from the district’s distant nerve center in the downtown Civic Center. That suspicion was rampant during the mandatory busing days of the late 1970s and revived dramatically in recent years when the board considered putting all schools on year-round calendars to help relieve Central City school crowding.

“Many of us feel you could eliminate most of downtown (management) and it wouldn’t affect us in the classroom,” said Pat Bruns, co-founder of a parent support group in the Pacific Palisades. “In fact, it would probably help us.”

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The political stew of district labor-management beefs and neighborhood complaints is simmering in the current Westend campaigns, particularly the Gershman-Slavkin contest.

In public appearances, Gershman, who like Slavkin is a liberal Democrat, tends to give lengthy, reasoned explanations of the district’s “financial crisis,” how difficult it is to win the sympathy of his board colleagues for Westside problems and how painful the cuts will be to fund teacher pay raises.

A low-profile board member and former classroom teacher who is running on his educational qualifications and his record, Gershman, 49, argues, that despite competition for funds from others areas of the district, his experience and quiet diplomacy on the board have delivered some of the enriching programs Westside parents want. Those include a music academy at Hamilton High School, a traveling music instruction program for elementary school students, a program to prepare high school students for international studies, and a pilot project to allow English-speaking students to be immersed in intense Spanish programs.

“I may be quiet, but I’m effective,” he said. “We can’t afford to have someone just learning about the school district.”

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Slavkin, 27, meanwhile, is running a fast-paced, free-swinging campaign as an outsider, hammering at “remote fat-cat bureaucrats” and the “tragic state of affairs” in campus security.

Gershman, he likes to say, is the status quo, administration candidate, a “Rip Van Winkle who has been asleep for eight years” while neighborhood schools have been gasping for help.

A good bit of the time Slavkin is appealing to teachers--he notes there are 7,000 UTLA members in the Westside district--with pledges to increase their pay and give them more say. “The answers to the problems at Orville Wright (Junior High) are here in this room,” he told teachers in the Westchester school’s faculty lunchroom the other day. “The answers are not downtown.”

In the West Valley race, the themes have been similar, with Korenstein and Horowitz each claiming to be the grass-roots candidate and accusing the other of being a captive, respectively, of the teachers union and the district administration.

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Parents are cognizant of the union-management struggle in this election, and some of them express strong feelings about it on one side or the other. But what is unclear is whether their views about the union vs. management will carry more weight in their ballot box decisions than their concerns about their neighborhood schools.

In Topanga Canyon, the road-crossing dilemma will be part of the parents’ decision. Some parents at the candidates’ debate seemed to buy Gershman’s defense of his efforts and explanation that the new left-turn lane--"it should be in by May"--will help.

Others prefer Slavkin, who said he would re-examine the traffic study that ruled out a crossing guard, and, in any case, would work closely with parents, rather than distant bureaucrats, to find an acceptable solution.

As they left, Johnson, Nissman and some of the other Topanga parents still were trying to decide who would be their choice.

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THE SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES:

DISTRICT 2 (Union backing challenger Slavkin)

Alan Gershman, 49, has represented the district since 1981. A former teacher, Gershman was endorsed by the teachers union in his first race and has been a low-profile board member who says he works quietly for his district. In recent years he has angered the teachers’ union by resisting pay increases that he says will require deep cuts in the instructional programs. Among the supporters of his reelection bid are many district administrators, school unions representing blue collar workers, State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig and Westside Los Angeles Council members Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude.

Mark Slavkin, 27, is a Democratic activist and deputy to Westside County Supervisor Ed Edelman. He has the backing of the teachers’ union and a number of Democratic leaders and clubs. He criticizes Gershman for supporting an allegedly wasteful and “demoralizing” school bureaucracy and appeals to teachers with promises to increase their pay and say in school decisions. His endorsements include the Los Angeles County Democratic Committee, Rep. Tony Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), former U.S. Sen. John Tunney and UCLA Chancellor Charles Young.

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Terry Edward Allen, 32, is a computer engineer who a representative said is concerned about the rise of Satanism in the schools.

Gary Garcia, 26, a district teacher, has withdrawn and endorsed Slavkin. His name still will be on the ballot.

DISTRICT 4: (Union backing incumbent Korenstein)

Julie Korenstein, 45, has represented district since 1987, when she won an uncompleted term. A former Chatsworth High teacher, Korenstein has the backing of teachers’ union and been a leading proponent of raising district salary offers to instructors. Korenstein criticizes district for being “too centralized and top-heavy with administration and needless bureaucracy.” She said she will resist efforts to shift students to her area to relieve inner-city school crowding. Her endorsements include Los Angeles Council members Joy Picus, Marvin Braude and Joel Wachs, Reps. Howard Berman, D-Panorama City, and Tony Beilenson, D-Los Angeles, and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner.

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Gerald Horowitz, 56, is a veteran junior high principal, whose transfer last summer from a Granada Hills school to one in Sun Valley triggered a short-lived recall effort against Korenstein. Horowitz charges Korenstein is inexperienced and beholden to the teachers union. He criticizes her support of a district counseling program for gay and lesbian students and campus health clinics that distribute birth control information and devices. He has support from a number of district administrators, former West Valley school board member David Armor, and the school district police officers union.

Barbara Romey, 41, a conservative, parent activist, lost to Korenstein in 1987. She criticizes the incumbent for being too close to the union and Horowitz for being allied with administration. She has been a leader in fight to block district from putting more Valley schools on year-round calendar to relieve overcrowding. She has endorsements of former West Valley board member and anti-busing leader Bobbi Fiedler, Assemblywoman Cathy Wright (R-Simi Valley) and the San Fernando Valley Business and Professional Assn. Los Angeles Councilman Hal Bernson and county Supervisor Michael Antonovich have given dual endorsements to Romey and Horowitz.

Michael Kaliczak, 38 is a businessman who has been active in school and youth groups. He argues that the school district top heavy with management and needs more independent, “normal” people like him.

Dauna Lee Packer, 39, is a parent involved in a West Valley fight against a district limit on students who can transfer to mostly white schools for before- and after-school child care. She has criticized Korenstein’s failure to win support for relaxation of the limit.

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Cliff Stadig, 69, is a retired general contractor who has been active in local Republican politics. He is touting his experience as a businessman, parent and grandparent.

DISTRICT 6 (Union remaining neutral)

Roberta Weintraub, 53, has served on the board since 1979. Perhaps the best known of the seven board members, she was a leading opponent of forced busing and has hosted television and radio talk shows. She is running on her record, citing recent efforts to block expansion of year-round schooling, televise weekly board meetings and expand bilingual education programs. Teachers deserve higher pay, she said, but the district cannot afford more than its current offer. She has a long, diverse list of endorsements from non-teaching school unions and elected officials, including liberal, Democrat Berman and conservative, Republican Antonovich. Barry Pollack, 42, is an emergency room physician and screenwriter who was active in opposition to year-round schools. He charges Weintraub has lost touch with the district and that the drop out rate and gangs problems have worsened since Weintraub joined the board. Pollock says by cutting management fat, the board can afford a better pay offer to resolve the long-running contract dispute with teachers. His endorsements include former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the Los Angeles County Democratic Committee, actor Bob Newhart and former NBC president Grant Tinker.

Ernesto Llanes, 45, is a self-employed electrical contractor and former teacher in the Philippines.

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