The City Election : Teachers Give a Lesson in Power at the Polls

Times Staff Writers

Overnight, the balance of power in the nation’s second-largest school district may have shifted dramatically.

As a result of Tuesday’s runoff election, the Los Angeles teachers union, which two weeks ago was locked in a bitter strike against the Los Angeles Unified School District, has won what appears to be a sympathetic majority on the Board of Education. And teachers suddenly face the heady prospect of wielding new influence over how the sprawling district--with about 600 schools and nearly 600,000 students--is run.

The change on the seven-member board also raises questions about the future of district Supt. Leonard Britton, who was the target of brutal union criticism over the last few months. Britton is due to come under review by the board before his contract expires next June, although the board could renew his contract before its membership changes in July.


Despite near-record low turnout at the polls, United Teachers-Los Angeles--the union representing most of the district’s 32,000 teachers--successfully turned out voters to reelect West San Fernando Valley board member Julie Korenstein and to secure challenger Mark Slavkin’s victory over Westside incumbent Alan Gershman.

“The message is you better listen to us or you are in political trouble,” UTLA President Wayne Johnson said Wednesday. “We defeated John Greenwood two years ago; we defeated Gershman now. The political strength of teachers cannot be underestimated.”

Slavkin is expected to join board members Korenstein, Warren Furutani and Jackie Goldberg to form a majority supportive of teacher demands. Gershman, along with Leticia Quezada and Rita Walters, opposed teacher salary demands that sparked the teachers strike that paralyzed the district for nine days in May.

Caution on Board Lineup

But Slavkin, cautioning against predictions about the new board lineup, said Wednesday that “it’s inaccurate to think that the four of us will line up on issues across the board. . . . There are issues where I will differ with the UTLA.”

And despite Johnson’s brash warnings, he said he is not completely convinced that teachers have won control of the school board.

“The joke is that you better get all you can from UTLA candidates right away because they’re only good for six months,” Johnson said. “We helped elect Alan Gershman, Rita Walters, Jackie Goldberg, Warren Furutani and Julie Korenstein--that’s five board members--and we still had a nasty strike.”

Goldberg, who has been at times supported and at times strongly criticized by the UTLA, said it is nearly impossible to achieve unanimity among board members because “there are too many things in teaching that teachers themselves can’t agree on.”

Still, Johnson and the UTLA clearly expect the union’s election efforts to yield greater influence over board policy. For example, the union is expected to have an impact this summer when the board will make final a plan to share school decision-making powers among teachers, parents and principals.

Whatever happens, Johnson and UTLA members say that their influence over board elections cannot be denied. More than 100 teacher volunteers walked precincts and telephoned voters in both the West Valley and Westside. With the help of thousands of teacher donations, Korenstein raised and spent about $200,000 since the campaign started in January, while Slavkin raised nearly $150,000 the same way.

Junior high school Principal Gerald E. Horowitz, who lost to Korenstein in a bitter runoff, charged that the UTLA bought the election.

Chris Nelson, Horowitz’s campaign consultant, said Korenstein raised three times as much money as Horowitz because of her union support. “This was probably the most blatant example you can see of special interests funding a campaign,” Nelson said.

Gershman has filed complaints with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission that the UTLA has exceeded campaign spending limits.

Korenstein was forced into a runoff after falling 57 votes short of the 50%-plus-one-vote majority needed to win in April. Gershman had received about 48% of the April 11 vote, compared to 36% for Slavkin.

Korenstein, despite being an incumbent, had been considered vulnerable to defeat. Her stance on some issues had angered several parents’ groups since her election to the board in June, 1987.

On the Westside, union support helped elect Slavkin--a 27-year-old aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman and a political unknown--in his first bid at public office.

Gershman staunchly opposed making deep cuts in the district budget in order to finance a raise in teachers’ salaries, and he did not go along with the contract settlement calling for a 24% pay increase over three years.

Unlike Korenstein, who talked frequently with the media and appeared on television several times during the strike, Gershman said almost nothing about the negotiations until a settlement was reached May 25.

“I had to play catch-up,” Gershman said.

Meanwhile, in two community college board runoffs Tuesday, the faculty union scored one win and one loss.

College Counselor Wins

In the election for Office No. 6, the American Federation of Teachers College Guild, which represents instructors and clerical employees of the Los Angeles Community College District, backed union activist and college counselor Althea Baker. Baker said Wednesday that she attributed her victory in large part to strong support from district faculty and staff.

Her opponent, Los Angeles Trade-Technical College English instructor Patricia Hollingsworth, said she lost because she could not spend as much as Baker on the campaign.

The faculty union spent $100,000 during the primary and runoff campaigns on behalf of Baker and the candidate it endorsed in the other race, Rose Ochi, union campaign analyst Art Forcier said.

But the backing of the teachers’ guild failed to secure a victory for Ochi, whose loss to Los Angeles Trade-Technical College auto shop teacher Pat Owen for trustee Office No. 2 surprised some political analysts.

Ochi, an attorney and aide to Mayor Tom Bradley as head of the city’s criminal justice planning office, outspent Owens by 10 to 1.

Some speculated that Ochi was hurt by her identification on the ballot as an attorney and mayoral aide. They said that many voters distrust lawyers and that Bradley’s recent problems as the subject of investigations into his personal finances probably cost his aide some votes.

Owens was not available for comment, but his campaign manager, Dan Carasso said: “The Bradley factor had to be weighed in, in all candor.”

Ochi said Wednesday that she was “disappointed” by her loss and felt that the low voter turnout contributed to her defeat.