Inglewood has a solid tax base. It has a strong economy. It has good city services. It has well-educated parents concerned about their children’s future.
The city’s big problem is its schools, judging by conversations with residents, business people, city officials, school employees and candidates in the April 4 election for three seats on the five-member school board.
Many say that years of divisiveness, corruption and political interference by board members have resulted in financial problems for the district and poor academic performance by students. In turn, they say, the district’s bad reputation hurts property values and the city’s overall image as a model for predominantly black and Latino communities.
The election comes at a critical time. Four of the five board members have served less than two years. The hiring last October of a new superintendent, George McKenna, has not fulfilled predictions that he would end the controversies but it has raised hopes in the 15,000-student district.
The two newest board members, Larry Aubry and Joseph Rouzan, face little or no opposition.
Rouzan won a decisive special-election victory for a vacant board seat in November and he is unopposed in his bid for a four-year term for Seat 3.
Aubry, a county human relations consultant who was elected to a vacancy for Seat 2 last year, faces Mildred McNair, who acknowledges that she has little chance of winning but is running as a protest candidate.
In the race for Seat 1, however, board President Caroline Coleman faces Emanuel Gary, Thomasina Reed and Jewett Walker in what could be the toughest race of her 10-year school board career.
Coleman, who has missed the last three board meetings because of illness, has been at the center of numerous disputes with other board members and members of the community, but she defends her record and says the board needs her experience.
The candidates run at large, and if none of the candidates for Seat 1 gets a majority April 4, the top two vote-getters will meet in a runoff in June.
Opponents say Coleman symbolizes everything that has been wrong with the schools.
“How long are we going to let somebody sit on the school board who is more concerned about City Hall than about parents and students?” asked Walker, an insurance underwriter who lost to Rouzan in November.
Reed agreed. “The school district is an embarrassment to the city,” said Reed, a lawyer seeking office for the first time. “Mrs. Coleman is more interested in politics than education. She’s there to make sure Mayor (Edward) Vincent has a voice on the board.”
Businessman and athletic coach Gary said: “Her time has come and gone.”
Coleman’s critics have long claimed that her votes on numerous issues have been influenced by Vincent, a close ally who was a school board member in the late 1970s. Coleman and Vincent have often been accused of using the district as a patronage pool.
Both deny the accusations.
“Most issues are controversial,” she said in a telephone interview last week. She called allegations that she lets city politics govern her school board votes “totally unfair.”
“There are no issues that City Hall has been interested in,” she said. “There is a personal relationship (with Mayor Vincent), but that has nothing to do with the Board of Education.”
Coleman, 51, who like Vincent works as a Los Angeles County probation officer, said she feels her 10 years on the board are her strongest credentials.
“My experience is absolutely essential,” she said. “Without me, there is really a lack of history on the board.”
Coleman, who has been homebound because of her illness, denied reports that she has cancer and may not be able to serve if elected.
She said her illness is “a female thing that’s caused me a lot of problems. I’m not physically able to go to board meetings at this time. I’m taking treatments that will be over in three weeks and then I’ll be able to come back.”
Mayor Vincent has said he supports Coleman, Aubry and Rouzan. Aubry and Rouzan, in turn, support Coleman. Literature for Coleman depicts her, Aubry and Rouzan, along with Supt. McKenna, as a team that will move the schools forward.
During Coleman’s tenure on the board:
* She was charged in 1985 with felony misuse of public funds, based on allegations that she did not attend a New Orleans conference for which she was reimbursed by the district.
She pleaded not guilty, and a Superior Court judge declined to hear the case, saying it was a civil matter. The criminal charges were dismissed. The board did not pursue a civil case. Although she was advised by lawyers from the school board and the county to abstain, Coleman cast the crucial vote in a board decision to pay her legal costs.
* Also in 1985, Coleman and two other board members abruptly fired the superintendent, Rex Fortune. Fortune accused Coleman and other board members of retaliating against him because he resisted their demand that he appoint a friend of the mayor to a school principal’s post. The mayor and the board members denied the allegation. Fortune was reinstated after a community uproar, and he eventually appointed the mayor’s friend, Vivian Shannon, principal of Centinela Elementary School.
* In 1987, Coleman and the same two board members pushed for a 14%, two-year pay increase for teachers that opponents warned would cripple the district. The raise eventually was approved for all district employees.
The district has not yet recovered from subsequent deficits that have reached $4 million, and forced various program and personnel cuts. Coleman and others say the pay raises are not to blame for the fiscal problems.
* Later in 1987, Coleman joined two other board members in appointing Rouzan to a board vacancy caused by a trustee’s death, despite protests that the appointment came after the board held an illegal closed meeting and illegally withheld from the public and the press information on the 20 applicants for the post. Rouzan’s appointment was later annulled as a result of a petition drive that forced a special election. Coleman and the other board members said they did nothing illegal and were trying to save the district the cost of an election.
* Last year, Coleman cast the lone vote against Supt. McKenna’s recommendation to dismiss Leonard Matthews, a high school principal charged with embezzlement of school funds.
Demoted to Teacher
In January, in a turnaround that brought cries of outrage from the community, Coleman, Aubry, and Rouzan supported the dismissal of Matthews, who was demoted to teacher status after he agreed to repay the district $10,000. Opponents said Matthews was protected from dismissal because he has political ties to those board members.
Coleman denied that, and said Matthews’ repayment of the $10,000 should not be viewed as an admission of guilt.
“I don’t know what he did,” she said. “The D.A. is looking at it. They’ll act if there was something wrong.”
Reed, Walker and Gary say Coleman’s defense of Matthews, whose case is being investigated by the county district attorney, has aggravated the district’s image problem and has hurt its efforts to get help from the private sector, which supplied some of the funds alleged to have been embezzled.
A Tough Fight
“You strip away all the rhetoric and there’s no excuse for someone in (Matthews’) position to have done the things he’s done and still be employed,” Walker said. “There are high-ranking administrators who lost jobs because of budget cuts who could have much better served the district. . . . It gives the impression that the school district is unwilling to take the responsibility to say, ‘Give us the money and we’ll spend it right.’ ”
One indication that Coleman faces a tough fight is the decision by the Inglewood Teachers Assn. not to endorse her. The group’s spokeswoman, Mary Ann Calloway, said the 624-member union had decided to back Walker, despite having endorsed Coleman in previous elections, and the fact that she voted for the pay raise.
“We felt he has a sincere dedication to the children,” Calloway said. “We are interested in candidates who are child-centered, not politically oriented. We feel he’ll do an excellent job.”
Walker’s work developing outside revenue sources as coordinator of the “adopt-a-school” program of the Parent Community Action Team, a parent/business organization, was particularly impressive, Calloway said.
Reed, 40, also has a potent endorsement: the Ladera Heights Civic Assn., which represents the affluent and voter-rich community northwest of Inglewood where both she and Walker live. She also said she is backed by board member Lois Hill-Hale, who did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.
Walker, 38, questioned whether Reed is more interested in the school district than in a political career. Walker said: “Thomasina Reed’s goal is to get into politics. I want to make an impact on the young people of the district.”
Reed said she does not rule out running for another office, but said she would serve her four-year term if elected. She objected to Walker’s statement that she sees the school board as a political steppingstone.
“That may be something that those with limited vision would do, but I’m much more concerned in seeing that we improve our education,” she said.
Reed said her work as an attorney and former minority-student recruitment director at the University of Pennsylvania are credentials that would help build confidence in the district. She said a priority is halting the loss of promising students to other districts, especially at the high school level.
Reed called for further involvement of the district’s 40% Latino population in school affairs, suggesting $5,000 incentive bonuses for teachers who are bilingual. She said there should be more emphasis on black and Latin-American cultures in the curricula.
“We need to build self-esteem among students,” she said. “We need to be looking at recruiting Latino principals.”
Reed, who moved into the district in 1987, is the only candidate whose children have not attended Inglewood schools. Her daughter attended Westchester High School in Los Angeles.
Reed said having children enrolled in district schools should not be a prerequisite for serving on the board.
Gary, 43, cites his experience as an athletic coach for Inglewood schools and the Centinela Valley YMCA. He says he sees a board member’s role as a “coach for the whole district.”
“Other communities are more involved with their schools, other business communities are more involved,” he said. “We have a self-image problem. We’re not looking out for our own. We don’t love ourselves enough. Ten or 15 years from now, we’re going to pay the price. That’s why I’m running.”
Gary said he is mounting a low-budget, grass-roots campaign. He promises to work for a more challenging curriculum and improved ties with the business community.
Gary has been described by other candidates as the candidate favored by board member Zyra McCloud, a Coleman rival who is frequently the lone dissenting voice on the board.
McCloud declined to comment on whether she is backing Gary.
Several candidates responded cautiously to questions on another issue, the future of Inglewood High School Principal Lawrence Freeman.
Freeman’s charismatic, aggressive style has gained him media coverage and fierce admirers who say he is an Inglewood success story. Critics, particularly teachers, say he is abrasive and should be dismissed.
Freeman was involved in a well-publicized argument with Supt. McKenna last October. Since then, employees and others have said privately that McKenna intends to remove Freeman from the principalship. McKenna denies he has any such plans.
Walker praised Freeman’s five-year tenure, but said he did not know how he would vote on a recommendation to remove him.
“He’s cleaned up the campus, the students are making progress, the parents are satisfied,” Walker said. “But from the teachers’ standpoint, there’s a morale problem at Inglewood High School.”
Coleman said: “I have no idea whether Freeman will be there next year or not. It hasn’t been discussed. . . . He has done wonders at that school. But I know his shortcomings and they are glaring.”
Gary, however, expressed support for Freeman.
“I’d like to see him tone down the hyperactive attitude,” he said. “But there’s something happening there. There’s a sense of commitment. He works seven days a week. He has a relationship with those children. If you throw him out, it throws things into chaos.”
Reed declined to take a position on Freeman, saying: “I don’t know Mr. Freeman.”
Beed had raised $13,629 for the board race as of Thursday, according to county elections officials. Campaign statements filed last month showed Walker had raised $1,044 as of Feb. 18. Coleman’s first campaign finance statement said she had not raised any money. Gary had not submitted a campaign statement, as of Friday. The statements were to have been postmarked no later than Thursday.
In the other race, Aubry reported a $2,275 war chest, while McNair submitted a form saying she did not intend to raise more than $1,000.
Aubry took a neutral position on the future of Freeman, the principal, although he acknowledged that he has reservations about Freeman’s methods.
Aubry, 55, said his top priorities include improving the district’s financial situation and stepping up efforts to combat gangs and violence in schools.
McNair, a 48-year old teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District who has run for a number of local offices without success, acknowledged that her chances for victory are slim.
She said her candidacy is a statement of opposition to the “City Hall machine that runs the school district,” to which she said Aubry belongs. McNair also said she has doubts about the performance so far of Supt. McKenna, who she said has been overly “hyped” in his first year on the job. McNair declined to be photographed by The Times.
Aubry said political divisions on the board have been a problem in the past, but he said he has not experienced outside political pressure since he began his term on the board. And he agreed that the district has reached a pivotal point.
“The problems are enormous, but not unsolvable,” he said. “The potential for resolving major problems is there in Inglewood.”
Caroline Coleman Seat 1 incumbent Age: 51 Occupation: County probation officer
Larry Aubrey Seat 2 incumbent Age: 55 Occupation: Human relations consultant
Joseph Rouzan Seat 3 incumbent Age: 55 Occupation: Criminal justice consultant
Emanuel Gary Seat 1 candidate Age: 43 Occupation: Businessman
Thomasina Reed Seat 1 candidate Age: 40 Occupation: Attorney
Jewett Walker Seat 1 candidate Age: 38 Occupation: Insurance underwriter
A photo was unavailable for Seat 2 candidate Mildred McNair, 48, a school teacher.