Tension thick as August smog permeated the Sacramento hearing last spring in a room jammed with supporters of the Los Angeles Unified School District's bid for $50 million in state funds. Without the money, the district would be unable to buy the former Ambassador Hotel site for a badly needed high school.
Members of the committee holding the purse strings listened stonily as school board members and parents pleaded their case, pitting the needs of Los Angeles' poor and minority children against the commercial development desires of multimillionaire Donald Trump.
When the committee narrowly rejected the district's request, Jackie Goldberg, board president and passionate leader of the charge to acquire the land, burst into tears.
Board colleague Leticia Quezada leaped to Goldberg's side, putting an arm around her. Other board members rose from their seats to stand by their leader while she pleaded for reconsideration. When the district finally prevailed, the room erupted in cheers and board members hugged one another in jubilation.
It was a rare and dramatic moment of unanimity for the seven men and women elected to oversee the nation's second-largest school district. Driven by a complex set of pressures, board members have had a hard time reaching consensus on so-called "big-picture" issues.
They each bring vastly varying agendas and political views to the job, and they represent geographic areas that are so different from one another that they often find themselves in competition for money and at odds over policies and priorities.
The personality clashes that come through loud and clear at their televised meetings only add to the widely held perception that board members are frittering away their time on trivial matters and improperly intervening in day-to-day district operations.
"We all come from very different directions, and so we've gone through some difficult times. It's not always easy to get any four of us to agree on many of the issues," said board member Julie Korenstein.
Nor are the difficult times likely to end soon. Goldberg's recent decision not to seek reelection this spring deprives the board of a knowledgeable and energetic--if sometimes controversial--leader. Four seats will be up in the April elections.
In addition, the board's recent--and unsuccessful--bid for full-time status and a hefty boost in its $24,000 annual pay has attracted increased scrutiny and has heightened the debate over what is its proper role.
But, as the so-far successful fight for the Ambassador shows, board members have on occasion been able to set aside their differences and work together. They have settled on a plan for teaching students who don't speak English and have worked through the controversies surrounding the shifting of all schools to year-round operation as a way to relieve overcrowding. Joining with the teachers' union, they have taken steps toward paring down the district's central bureaucracy and shifting more resources and decision-making authority to schools, a potentially far-reaching reform.
"I give this school board a mixed review," said Allan Odden, professor of education at USC and a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education. "They are a board still struggling to find consensus, so what the public sees is a great deal of disagreement.
"But I think there is somewhat less disagreement than there was three years ago," added Odden, who credits Goldberg for "getting the board to focus a little more on student achievement and curriculum and teaching."
The progress is not easy to detect from watching the board's public sessions, televised by the district's UHF station, KLCS. The meetings usually last for hours--much of the time consumed by arguments over picayune issues and personal bickering.
People who tuned in regularly during the last year saw board members spend an hour and a half arguing over (and ultimately rejecting) a student committee's recommendations concerning the high costs of prom night. On other nights, viewers caught long, heated debates over how to fill a $40,000-a-year teaching job and whether to spend $25,000 of its $4-billion budget on an arts program.
On other broadcasts, there was veteran board member Rita Walters calling newcomer Mark Slavkin "a creature of the (teachers) union" and, during an especially rancorous budget session last summer, trading barbs with Korenstein, elected from the largely white, upper-middle-class West San Fernando Valley, and implying that Korenstein has never had to do her own vacuuming.
"I wish that we were able to more clearly articulate our ideological differences--because I think those are illuminating to the public--without bringing in personalities," Goldberg said.
An unabashed advocate for the district's poor, minority students, Goldberg's passion has led some of her board colleagues to be privately suspicious of her drive and ambition. When asked why Goldberg vigorously resisted a growing movement among board members to replace then-Supt. Leonard Britton, one board member smiled knowingly and replied, "She liked Britton because he let her be superintendent."
After nearly eight years on the board, Goldberg believes she can do more good by returning to the classroom.
"I feel we've accomplished a lot," she said recently, "but the thing I ran for the board to do--improving the achievement of all our children--I haven't been able to do."
The on-camera spats only hint at the varied forces driving the board.
There is more and more pressure from frustrated business leaders, parents and others dismayed at the district's continuing lack of success in educating many of its students, especially blacks and Latinos. Together they make up about 77% of its 625,000 youngsters.
There are the ceaseless budget problems and the frustrating dependence on the state for most of the district's money. And the unrelenting, increasingly diverse stream of new students--many of whom speak little or no English or suffer from poverty--arriving at aging, crowded schools.
There are the parents, who, when they get frustrated by what they believe is a wrongheaded decision by a principal or teacher, look to their board representative to do something about it. There is the powerful teachers union, United Teachers-Los Angeles, which on several occasions has helped turn unsympathetic board members out of office. And there are the scores of community groups who want board members at their functions to explain what is going on in the schools and why.
Political animals that they are, board members are ever mindful of how they come across to their constituencies. As a result, there is an almost constant undercurrent of posturing and some jealousy over who gets credit for projects and achievements, whose views are most prominently reflected and who ventured into another's district to garner publicity.
About a decade ago, the rules were changed to require candidates to run from a geographic district instead of at large. The goal of the district system was to ensure broader representation, especially for the minorities who make up much of South-Central Los Angeles and the East Side.
But the unintended result was to make each member primarily responsive to a district, inevitably creating conflicts over how to spread thin resources. A typical battle occurred last summer, when board members representing suburban areas wanted to spend more money to help schools whose enrollments had recently become dominated by minority students. Others representing inner-city areas that had been virtually all-black or Latino for years feared that the money would be siphoned from their schools.
"Yes, we got minority representation, but what you hear most often now is board members talking about ' my schools' and ' my principals' and ' my students,' " said Virgil Roberts, an attorney and businessman long active in the district, first during the court battles over integration in the 1970s and now as chairman of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a business group trying to help improve public schools.
"In a city as big and diverse as Los Angeles, those districts have different needs and perspectives . . . and that makes it hard for the board to agree on things," Roberts added.
Members sometimes disagree even on what their relationship to the voters ought to be, what 11-year veteran Walters describes as the "thermostat/thermometer" phenomenon.
"If you're a thermostat, you set the temperature and go out and try to educate people on the issues; you offer some leadership," Walters said. "All thermometers do is take the temperature. . . . They're too sensitive to the ballot box."
Roberta Weintraub, the board's other longest-serving member, however, believes it is important to tailor her actions and priorities to reflect the dramatic changes in her East Valley district, which has gone from nearly all-Anglo to heavily Latino in a decade.
"I have certainly shifted my gears to try to serve my community," Weintraub said.
Despite the widespread dissatisfaction with the schools, members get high marks from most observers for diligence, energy and dedication to youngsters. After a divisive year of budget cutting and arguing over whether they had the right superintendent, board members settled into a recent period of calm, the credit for which is given most often to the district's popular, widely trusted new superintendent--veteran administrator Bill Anton--or to Goldberg.
But the request to the state Board of Education for permission to raise members' pay brought a fresh wave of criticism, leaving them little choice but to back off.
Before withdrawing the request, members said they all put in at least 40 hours a week. They cited the time required to address constituents' problems, attend education seminars, lobby Sacramento for money and favorable laws, and make sure the district's own entrenched bureaucracy is implementing their policies.
There also are long hours in closed sessions over a steady stream of lawsuits and sticky personnel issues as well as regular, often lengthy board and committee meetings. Blessed with a civic-minded employer, only Quezada is able to hold down a full-time job.
Conflict-of-interest codes severly restrict the others from even part-time work. Goldberg, for example, had to turn down a part-time teaching job at Cal State Los Angeles.
If only the wealthy can afford to serve on the board, members argued, how can voters get representatives from all walks of life and points of view?
But their stumping for a raise sharply accelerated the argument over whether they ought to be on the job full time and whether that only encourages inappropriate intervention in the running of the schools.
"If you base (the pay-raise decision) on whether they spend time and work hard, the answer is yes," said USC's Odden.
"But I'm not sure that's the behavior you want to reinforce," he added.
Like Odden and others, the business leaders who have become interested in improving public education believe firmly that the school board ought to act like a private corporation's board of directors--decide on broad goals and objectives but entrust the day-to-day operations to the superintendent.
When board members spend their time debating what school cafeterias should be permitted to offer for lunch or checking into a teacher's grading system or questioning a principal's staff assignment, they are accused of "micromanaging."
Goldberg said the district's critics have blown such instances out of proportion. "I would say that 90% of us 90% of the time don't micromanage at all," but on those occasions when board members do step into district operations, "it is when we ourselves get very frustrated with constituents complaining about something over and over again."
James S. Catterall, associate professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education, said he believes it is time to revise the role of the school board in ways that would enable members to concentrate on larger issues without requiring them to work full time on district business. He, too, would like to see the board relieved of many of its duties--including some matters, such as personnel decisions and building and service contracts, which state law requires it to be involved in.
But expecting the board to act just like corporate directors is neither realistic nor appropriate, Catterall added.
"A corporate board can turn over the ship to the chief executive officer and tell pretty well by the quarterly report whether the job is getting done and how the bottom line looks," he said.
"But in education you just don't have as clear a read as to what the conditions in the system are, and you'll always have controversy over what those conditions are or ought to be," Catterall added.
Board members believe it is their prerogative, even their duty, to step into school operations when they feel that the system isn't working.
Recently, for example, teachers at Mt. Washington Elementary School were angered when parents--upset because the principal would not change their child's class assignment--called Quezada. The child was moved. Quezada denied that she ordered the change but said that she simply--and appropriately, she argued--asked the principal's superiors to review the situation, and they sided with the parents.
"I have to keep inferring that it is my job to oversee what happens in the district. . . . It is my charge to 'interfere' on (parents') behalf" if there is some question over whether the system is functioning properly, Quezada said.
But others acknowledged that the critics have a point--particularly when it comes to the less-than-cosmic matters that make up the bulk of the public meeting agendas.
Last spring, after months of study, the board agreed to relinquish decisions in 22 subject areas to district administrators. No longer are the elected officials required to review one-day student field trips, approve small changes in contracts or vote on requests for helicopter landings at schools. They now leave to administrators the matter of routine relocation-assistance payments to people who lose homes or businesses to new schools. They also have turned over authority to cancel certain contracts, to make minor corrections in board reports and to accept donations and give away obsolete instructional materials.
But letting go is not always as easy as it might seem.
"When you look at the large issues facing the district, you can be overwhelmed. So at some level there is comfort in working right down to the nitty-gritty of this contract or this dollar amount or this teacher," Slavkin said, adding:
"My concern is we are spending so much time putting out those sorts of fires day to day, we don't have a process in place to address (significant) issues down the road."