L.A. SCHOOL BOARD THE PLAYERS : Diverse Personalities Yield Delicate Alliances


Alliances on the Los Angeles Board of Education are fluid, delicate and often unpredictable.

For example, while Leticia Quezada has counted Jackie Goldberg on her side when it comes to bilingual education and year-round schools, it is a different matter when the issue is whether to change superintendents or how to lop $220 million from the Los Angeles Unified School District's annual budget.

These days, the most consistent allies are Rita Walters and Quezada, who often stand together on matters they believe reflect inequities in the treatment of black and Latino students.

That was not always the case. Quezada said Walters did not trust her when she first joined the board, and the two engaged in some public feuding. Eventually, they worked out their differences during several private meetings, including one at the home of Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre.

"We broke down the barriers between them," Alatorre said of the afternoon session. "We had two strong-willed women very committed to issues. They had the same concerns, but they weren't communicating."

Walters, 60, a fiery veteran of school desegregation battles, has long believed that the district's black youngsters get a raw deal. She is openly suspicious of the other board members' motives. She refused to vote for fellow liberal Goldberg for president, and sometimes needles Warren Furutani, whose dramatically diverse board district stretches from the poor black and Latino neighborhoods south of Los Angeles to the suburb of San Pedro: "Warren, you act like you don't represent Watts."

Quezada, 37, came to California as a child, a Mexican immigrant struggling to learn English in schools that had little help to offer her. She graduated with honors from UC Santa Cruz, and earned a master's degree in education and a teaching credential.

High on her priorities list are bilingual education and more Latino parent involvement in the schools. A diplomat who talks about "process," she refrains from personal criticism of other board members and tries to get along with all her colleagues.

Goldberg, 46, an articulate, longtime liberal activist, is philosophically aligned with Quezada and Walters, but she often positions herself to be more open to compromise, especially on the kind of trade-off issues she calls "tweeners." She sided with the majority (and against Walters and Quezada) in a vote to relax the district's tough academic requirements for participation in sports and other after-school activities because she felt the activities' incentives for youngsters to stay in school outweighed the need for maintaining strict achievement rules.

Furutani, 43, shot into the spotlight in 1987 when he reversed his vote on a plan to relieve overcrowding by putting all the district's schools into year-round operation. His reversal forced the board to delay its plan. Fellow board members criticized his "flip-flop," some contending that he had not understood what he had voted on.

Furutani said his constituents did not know about the vote and had not been given the opportunity to "register their feelings." This year, he voted for the proposal--after holding six neighborhood meetings.

Since the 1987 flap, he has kept a relatively low profile, viewing himself as a "mediator" and putting few controversial measures on the table. He is sometimes a swing vote, and sides more often with the suburban members.

Julie Korenstein, 47, elected with strong union support, has found common ground most often with another union ally and the board's newest member, Mark Slavkin, elected in 1989 to represent the Westside. They sit next to each other at board meetings, and she often seems to consult him before she speaks out or moves to amend others' motions.

A former special education teacher, Korenstein has carried the ball on successful drives to toughen the district's punishment of students who bring weapons to school and to soften its academic standards for students who participate in extracurricular activities.

An avowed fiscal conservative, she has set herself up as a watchdog of district spending, and often questions even small amounts for building projects or field trips. She has been dismissed by some as a lightweight, in part because her questions are often simplistic and appear to reflect a lack of understanding of district procedures. She is lauded by others for not being afraid to question "sacred cows" or challenge conventional notions, such as her suggestion earlier this year that the district's busing-for-integration program be disbanded because its students were not showing achievement gains.

Many board watchers expect Slavkin, at 29 its youngest member, to go the furthest in carving out a political career. A former aide to county Supervisor Ed Edelman, his political sophistication shows in his demeanor and the broad approach he has taken in his short time on the board.

He chooses not to respond to Walters' frequent public attacks. He works closely and visibly with parents and schools in his district and offers far-reaching--if short on specifics--ideas to address such district problems as overcrowding.

His critics are suspicious of his ties to United Teachers Los Angeles, and he did nothing to assuage them when he carried a motion, approved by the board, for requiring non-member teachers to pay the union for its contract bargaining and other services.

In fact, most of the current board members won their first terms in large part because of union support. However, a pattern has emerged that board members tend to loosen their ties to UTLA as other groups and pressures exert themselves. Now, the union usually finds itself in the opposite camp from Walters, and its leaders have split often enough with fellow teacher Goldberg that it did not endorse her when she sought her second term in 1987.

Walters has been the union's most outspoken critic. She was the only one to vote against the contract that ended a 1989 teachers' strike with a hefty pay raise and an accord that paved the way for a transfer of power from district headquarters to the schools.

Her contentious spirit over what she calls "issues of equity" for the district's black students and employees has won her many loyal admirers in the 11 years that she has been on the board.

As her single-mindedness leaves her more and more isolated from her colleagues, some black community leaders worry that her unwillingness to build bridges with more of the other board members undercuts her effectiveness.

The length of her tenure on the board is matched only by Roberta Weintraub's and, during the long fight over busing, the two women engaged in some of the most strident exchanges of that time. Weintraub, not realizing the mike was open, once referred to Walters as a "bitch" on a radio interview program.

The relations between the two are far more civil now, although it is clear that scars from the blows exchanged a decade ago remain.

Weintraub, 55, has tempered the excitable, rather naive nature she exhibited when she was elected in 1979 by anti-busing forces. She once told a reporter she had spent most of her life in affluent, middle-class Jewish circles before then.

"When I got on the board, then came the full spectrum. I discovered what the city was really like," Weintraub said in a 1985 interview in which she acknowledged that she had made mistakes early on.

Since mandatory busing ended in spring 1981, Weintraub has concentrated on pushing for equitable pay for women and for better opportunities for their advancement. She joined Goldberg in winning controversial health clinics for three of the district's most needy high schools. A health and fitness buff, she has campaigned for more nutritious meals and for a while succeeded in banning "junk food" from campus vending machines. She often gets up at 4 a.m. to fit daily workouts into her schedule. While she was school board president a couple of years ago, she insisted on adding bottles of a trendy mineral water--with labels removed so as not to provide free advertising for the company--to the peanuts, M & Ms and other goodies board members munch during meetings.

Some of her colleagues find her alternately irritating and endearing.

"One day Roberta drives you crazy with something she does at the meeting," said one, "but the next day she's on the phone to you, worried because she noticed you weren't feeling well, and you realize she really cares. You just can't stay mad at her."

Jackie Goldberg (board president)

Age: 46

District 3: Includes Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Mid-Wilshire, Downtown Los Angeles, Olympic corridor.

Warren Furutani

Age: 43

District 7: Includes Watts, South Gate, Gardena, Carson, Lomita, Harbor City, Wilmington, San Pedro.

Julie Korenstein

Age: 47

District 4: Includes Reseda, Northridge, Chatsworth, Encino, Tarzana, Woodland Hills, Canoga Park.

Leticia Quezada

Age: 37

District 5: Includes Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Vernon, Maywood, Huntington Park, Cudahy, Bell.

Mark Slavkin

Age: 29

District 2: Includes West Los Angeles, Westchester, Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Brentwood, Westwood, Pacific Palisades, Bel-Air, Fairfax.

Rita Walters

Age: 60

District 1: Includes South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles, Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, View Park.

Roberta Weintraub

Age: 55

District 6: Includes Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Sunland-Tujunga, Pacoima, Mission Hills, Sepulveda, San Fernando.

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