The contest for the seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board that represents the South Bay and part of Watts is widely viewed as a tossup.
So much so that the powerful teachers' union has made no endorsement in the four-way race, choosing instead to save its strength for a likely runoff.
"They all have strengths in different areas," said Inola F. Henry, who is head of United Teachers Los Angeles' political arm--the Political Action Council of Educators. "We felt more than likely (the race) would end up in a runoff and decided we would look at the candidates at that point."
None of the four candidates competing in the April 11 election for the open seat in District 7 has previously run for public office.
For the last eight years, the seat belonged to Warren Furutani. His decision not to run for reelection left the seat open, making it unlikely that any single contender could muster enough votes to win outright in the April contest. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the two top vote-getters will compete in a June 6 runoff election.
Two of the candidates are longtime district employees: George Kiriyama, 63, principal of Gardena Community Adult School, and Sid Brickman, 68, a retired superintendent for elementary and secondary schools in the South Bay.
The other two candidates are district activists: Laura Ann Richardson, 32, a San Pedro businesswoman who has linked the company she works for with the school district, and Kathleen Fleming Dixon, 42, a mother of two school-age children and a family law attorney who has worked for district reform.
All support local control, a philosophy that gives teachers, principals, support people, parents and the community a voice in the management of local schools. All believe that the district needs to do more to improve the opportunities for graduating seniors not headed for college.
And although none of the candidates favors secession movements in Carson and Lomita, all of them say they will cooperate if the cities win the right to form their own districts.
The best-financed of the four candidates is Kiriyama, a friend of Furutani who began raising money for his campaign nearly two years ago. As of Feb. 25, he had $129,879 in contributions, nearly six times more than Brickman, the second highest fund-raiser, who had $22,702, including $6,000 in loans from his wife. Richardson had $8,800, including an $8,000 loan to herself, while Dixon had $925 in contributions.
Kiriyama is endorsed by Furutani, who describes him as "a guy of integrity, not real fancy, who won't come in wearing Italian-pressed suits." The other candidates, however, have all criticized Furutani for throwing his political muscle behind a candidate who only moved into the district to run for the post.
"Warren Furutani hand-selected George to run as his successor and has done everything in his power to raise money and support Kiriyama in this race," Dixon said. "For him to have supported someone who didn't even live in this district . . . is an insult to every member of this district."
Furutani defended his decision to support his friend, saying Kiriyama's service to the district more than qualifies him to represent it.
Kiriyama moved out of his house in Torrance in March, 1994, to rent a guest house behind a home in Carson. He moved two other times since February and now lives with his wife in a small apartment in Gardena. He says he will try to buy a home in Gardena if he is elected to the school board. If he doesn't win, "I may move to Hawaii, who knows?" he said.
The Los Angeles City Charter says that school board candidates in this race must have resided in the district since Dec. 12, 1994.
Noting that he more than meets the requirements, Kiriyama dismisses the criticism about his move, saying his critics are "blowing this out of proportion."
"Yes, I moved into the area," he said. "I feel I'm the most qualified person, and therefore I'm running for this office."
Kiriyama, who began his career in the district as an elementary school teacher in 1964 and has been principal of Gardena Community Adult School for five years, promises to be a strong advocate of the clustering movement, which seeks to forge stronger ties between high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.
To strengthen local control, he said, he would encourage schools to create an advisory committee of teachers, administrators, parents and others to discuss everything from new textbooks to the distribution of condoms.
Kiriyama would encourage teachers to incorporate a discussion of values into their lessons. Schools could have art contests to illustrate themes such as honesty, he said.
To improve campus safety, Kiriyama advocates the purchase of walkie-talkies to give teachers in remote locations instant communication with the front office. They could be bought with money from bake sales and the instructional materials fund, he said.
Kiriyama also promises to lobby the district's budget office to produce a computer program that would provide information on how district money is being spent. The information would enhance fiscal responsibility, he said.
Like Kiriyama, Brickman made a career for himself at Los Angeles Unified. Hired by the district as a mathematics and science teacher in 1952, Brickman spent the next three decades rising through the ranks, first as an assistant principal, then as principal and finally as region superintendent for elementary and secondary schools in the South Bay area.
Although that background has earned him criticism for being part of the district's "old guard," Brickman points out that his former union, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, has not backed his candidacy.
"They must think that I'm not going to go along with their thinking," said Brickman, who retired in 1989 to travel around the world.
Actually, a spokesman for the organization said, the group committed itself to support Kiriyama more than a year ago--long before Brickman had entered the race.
"If he wants to use that as a propaganda tool, that's fine," President Eli Brent said. "But we have nothing against Sid Brickman. He's a nice guy."
Brickman said he decided to throw his hat into the ring because he believes the district has lost direction and that he has the knowledge and experience to set it right.
"I don't really feel a lot of the issues that are discussed at the school board have to do with education," he said. "They have to do with 'What is my pet psychological or sociological issue of the day?' "
Brickman does not support the distribution of condoms at district-run health clinics nor the hiring of gay and lesbian counselors for gay and lesbian students. If elected, he would seek a re-evaluation of those policies.
A native of Canada where French and English are spoken, Brickman is critical of the district's bilingual education program. As a trustee of the district, he would seek reforms that would concentrate bilingual teachers into newcomer classes, rather than spreading them throughout the schools.
As a major account manager for Xerox who is responsible for handling many of the equipment needs of the Los Angeles school district, Richardson says she can bring a "business-oriented perspective" to the board.
She encouraged her company to adopt the district, which she says resulted in substantial savings to the district. And two years ago, she organized a Xerox-sponsored workshop that sought to teach more than 500 teachers and other employees how to improve their communication skills.
As trustee, Richardson said, she would focus on developing stronger ties between businesses and the school district, soliciting contributions of money and equipment. In exchange, students could get job experience by working as interns or apprentices.
"Business has to understand what's in it for them," Richardson said. "That's why we need someone who knows the language that they speak."
Some critics believe Richardson's credibility suffered, however, when the city Ethics Commission confirmed that she was 20 days late in filing her campaign finance reports. Richardson is appealing the $200 fine, saying she sent the reports on time but that they appear to have been lost in the mail. The commission has not yet ruled on her appeal.
To better communicate with her constituents, she proposes setting up a hot line that would tell callers how the board voted on various issues and allow them to comment. She said she would set up advisory councils in each of the major cities that make up District 7 and would meet with one council every month.
Dixon blames her inability to raise more money on the fact that she entered the contest late. But she contends her campaign has tremendous grass-roots support among parents pushing for district reform.
As co-chair of a parent involvement committee, Dixon spearheaded the creation of a community services branch to involve parents in their children's schools.
"I'm an outsider and yet I've been involved as a volunteer on a leadership level," Dixon said. "I'm not coming to it as a novice, but I'm not part of the district either."
She believes the biggest problem facing the district is what she describes as its crushing bureaucracy. Her first priority would be to lobby the central office to make the district budget easier to understand.
A clearer accounting would make it easier to manage the district's funds and would put an end to "the politics of divisiveness," in which teachers seeking pay raises are regarded as selfish, she said.