Unlike the acrimonious races of the past, this fall's special election for an open seat on the Centinela Valley Union High School District board has been marked by little mudslinging.
Candidates Ann Birdsall and John Dragone Jr. have chosen instead to target current Supt. Joseph M. Carrillo for problems they say plague the district.
In two previous elections, challengers spent much of their time attacking incumbents over the district's problems, including racial discrimination suits, labor disputes and fiscal mismanagement that nearly left the district insolvent three years ago.
This election, Carrillo's management style has come under attack. Birdsall, a former board member, and Dragone are vying for a seat left open when board President Pamela Sturgeon left her post in June to move to Las Vegas.
Since then, the board has been deadlocked on key issues, with two longtime board members siding with the administration, and two recently elected members criticizing Carrillo. The winner Tuesday is likely to break the tie. But both candidates said they would not necessarily vote against Carrillo.
Birdsall and Dragone agree on many issues, including a need to change the way Carrillo handles the district's finances.
Birdsall criticized Carrillo's practice of signing district purchase orders before seeking board approval, saying that past officials were less than forthcoming about the district's finances.
"This is what you've got to do to make sure no one is breaking the rules. It's to keep everything on the up and up," she said.
Birdsall says the practice is against board policy. Current board members have split on the issue.
Dragone questioned Carrillo's use of outside contractors to do work that Dragone says could be done by district employees for less money.
"It's very costly," Dragone said, adding that the district should purchase equipment and use the district's maintenance staff to do things such as carpet cleaning and plumbing. "If you have paid people on the books, utilize them."
Both said Carrillo's proposal to open a magnet school that would cater to the district's brightest students is misguided. Overcrowding at the district's main schools, Leuzinger High and Hawthorne High, shows a need to open a comprehensive high school on the former Lawndale High School site, they say.
In the only attack between the opponents, Dragone linked Birdsall's six years on the board during the 1980s to the fiscal crisis of three years ago. In 1989, Birdsall, along with former board members Aleta Collins and Herbert Bartelt, held a majority on the five-member board. All three, who were supporters of then-Supt. McKinley Nash, were voted out of office that year.
Dragone believes that the district's decline began during Birdsall's tenure.
"When (Birdsall) and her two colleagues controlled the school board, they not only failed to solve the problems, they created them," Dragone said.
Birdsall maintains that the district was in good financial shape when she was ousted, and that subsequent administrations were to blame.
Birdsall, 54, who lost a bid for a board seat in 1993, is a part-time records clerk at El Camino College. She has a grandson who attends Leuzinger.
In the wake of a race-related brawl on the Leuzinger campus last month, Birdsall says she will make school safety a top priority.
Stepping up enforcement of the district's anti-gang attire policy, random use of hand-held metal detectors and beginning an anti-truancy program at Leuzinger are essential to a safe school environment, she said.
Making neighborhood "safe houses" available to students walking to and from campus and separating students by using two lunch periods will help alleviate student tensions and fears, Birdsall said.
"I think people in this community are to the point where they want to free up their community . . . to make it safe for the kids," she said.
Dragone, 33, a manager of a company that moves freight through U.S. Customs, also ran for the board in 1993. This time he is running on a platform of "zero tolerance," a policy that calls for the immediate expulsion of students who seriously threaten the safety of other students, he said.
He proposes requiring parents of disruptive children to attend classes with them. Dragone has two children attending elementary school in Hawthorne.
Dragone agrees with Birdsall that lax enforcement of the district's anti-gang dress code must be changed, but Dragone opposes the use of hand-held metal detectors.