Hands-On and Gloves-Off Style : Schools: Board of Education President Joseph D. Carrabino is leading the fight against Honig for more control.


The State Board of Education, which usually competes with the state Cemetery Board and the Board of Veterinary Medicine Examiners for political excitement, has been alive with controversy recently.

The 11 board members engage in sharp disputes at their monthly meetings. Voices ring out. Tables are pounded. Arms are waved in the air. Members of the audience no longer doze through the proceedings.

Much of this new excitement is because of Board President Joseph D. Carrabino, a pugnacious former UCLA management professor who successfully marshaled a majority of board members for an assault on the policy-making prerogatives of state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

After months of wrangling, the board last week abandoned efforts to compromise with Honig and took the first steps toward filing a lawsuit that is intended to extend the board's authority over the state education budget and other matters.

Carrabino charges that Honig operates as an "education czar" whose "one-man rule" has produced wasteful and ineffective policies. Though offering no evidence, he adds that loose administrative practices have created opportunities for "corruption" and "rip-offs" in the 1,200-employee Department of Education.

A furious Honig has fired back, accusing Carrabino of "McCarthy-like" smear tactics, as the verbal jousting has gone on for months.

Although Carrabino's attacks on Honig, a liberal Democrat, are popular with his fellow conservative Republicans, they have become something of an embarrassment to the Administration of Gov. Pete Wilson, which needs Honig's help to solve the state's huge budget deficit and to implement the governor's ideas for improved services for children.

"This is a very hot problem that we did not create," said Maureen DiMarco, secretary of child development and education in the Wilson Cabinet, referring to the feud between Carrabino and Honig, "but we very much want them to resolve it and get on to more important things."

The face-off with Honig is not the only controversy in Carrabino's stormy professional career.

Administration sources said they also are unhappy about the fact that Carrabino, who heads a board that sets policy for 4.9 million California schoolchildren, once was demoted at UCLA for failing to teach an assigned class--the only tenured professor to have been demoted in the recent history of the University of California.

Carrabino, 66, lived in Boston and later in New York City and has never lost the gruff ways and "Dead End Kids" accent of his Brooklyn years.

Tact and subtlety are not weapons in the Carrabino arsenal.

During a meeting with Honig last December, he observed that "the average board member doesn't even know what the hell vocational education is" and, later, "the average board member can't balance a checkbook." He also charged that most of the research money that goes to the University of California is wasted "and what they produce is crap."

"There's a wonderful naivete about the man," said an education official who has been observing Carrabino for some time. "I'm not sure he always means all that belligerent stuff, but it just comes pouring out."

Last September, Carrabino persuaded a majority of State Board of Education members to support proposals to significantly increase the board's authority over the huge education budget, the appointment of top officials to the Department of Education, and the review of policy directives before they are sent to the state's 1,000 school districts, among other moves.

Honig called the actions, taken without consulting him, an "ambush" and "either illegal or unconstitutional." There followed months of meetings, arguments and proposed compromises.

The dispute between the two top education officials reflects a combative side of Carrabino that has characterized his personal as well as his public life.

Carrabino earned an engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute--the first in his family to attend college. As a graduate student at Northwestern University in 1949, he accompanied that school's last Rose Bowl team to California and, he said, "was seduced by the shirt-sleeve weather." In 1950, he enrolled in UCLA's engineering doctoral program and remained at the Westwood campus for almost 40 years.

Carrabino's Ph.D. dissertation was considered to be pioneering work, but he published little after that. Instead, he ran a successful executive training program on the Westwood campus, developed a lucrative management consulting business and served on 16 public and private governing boards.

That included four years on the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which he left two years before a series of scandals led to the indictments of two commissioners and the mysterious drowning of the commission president.

Such outside activities are not well-regarded at a research-oriented university such as UCLA. He never advanced beyond the first step of full professor and was gradually excluded from mainstream activities in the Graduate School of Management, according to former colleagues.

Carrabino also frequently argued with department chairmen over his assignments. Court documents show these disputes reached a climax in the spring of 1982, when he refused to teach an assigned undergraduate management course and was demoted from full professor to associate professor.

The regents' computerized records, which date to 1965, show that Carrabino is the only tenured professor in the nine-campus system who has been reduced in rank, a UC spokesman said.

Carrabino said he refused to teach the course because "they weren't making the best use of my talents," contending that he was better qualified to teach graduate, not undergraduate, classes. He sued to reverse the university's decision. He failed, but regained his title as professor emeritus upon retirement in 1989 under an arrangement that UCLA administrators will not discuss.

Carrabino said he "was amazed" when asked in 1986 if he would like to serve on the State Board of Education. Five of Carrabino's six children went to parochial, not public, schools. "I didn't know anything about the State Board of Education," Carrabino said. "But the woman said, 'That's OK, nobody else does, either.' "

A San Fernando Valley Democrat turned Republican, Carrabino harbors political ambitions. He ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles city controller in 1981 and last year considered running against Democratic state Sen. Alan Robbins of Tarzana.

Carrabino would also like to be director of industrial relations in the Wilson Administration--a job he sought unsuccessfully from Wilson's predecessor, George Deukmejian.

Carrabino's controversial career and tendency to shoot from the hip seem to make him an unlikely Wilson appointee.

Time also may be running out for Carrabino on the board. His majority could end as terms of Deukmejian appointees expire and they are replaced by Wilson choices. Carrabino's term expires next January.

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