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Car Kills Ex-UTLA Chief Helen Bernstein

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Helen Bernstein, former Los Angeles teachers union president and a candidate for a City Charter reform panel, was struck by a car and killed Thursday night as she was crossing Olympic Boulevard on the way to speak to a neighborhood association, police said.

Bernstein, 52, was late for a speaking engagement at the Miracle Mile Residents Assn., said Jeanine Jackson, who attended the meeting. Bernstein was one of several candidates for the panel who were scheduled to speak.

Last November, Bernstein became Mayor Richard Riordan’s first education advisor. Riordan was stunned Thursday night when he learned of Bernstein’s death.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Riordan said moments after getting the news. “I was with her this morning. I’ve never seen her look better. She was so vibrant. A wonderful leader of teachers and school reform. A warm and wonderful friend. I can’t believe it.”

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Bernstein was dashing across the street to the meeting and was struck by a car, police and members of the neighborhood association said. Because she was not in a crosswalk, it appeared that the driver was not at fault and he was not cited, authorities said.

“She probably ran across the street like that because she was late,” Jackson said. “She was due to speak at 8 p.m. and was hit by the car at about 8:15.”

Colleagues said Bernstein often ran behind schedule and that it was not unusual for her to be in a rush to keep appointments.

Education officials in Los Angeles and across the state were saddened at news of Bernstein’s death, calling it a major blow to the school reform movement.

“It’s a real loss,” said Los Angeles school board President Jeff Horton. “She [had] such a clear vision about what was going to help to improve the schools, what didn’t work and what did. . . . She was a major asset in trying to make the public school system better.”

Maureen DiMarco, former secretary of child development and education under Gov. Pete Wilson, said Bernstein’s passion for her beliefs was admirable.

“Whether you agreed with her or didn’t agree with her, you never, ever doubted the passion and intensity with which she advocated for the issues,” DiMarco said. “She was incredibly bright, understood issues very quickly and had a very keen political sense. . . . Even people who tangled with her respected all of those characteristics.”

Mike Roos, president of LEARN, the school district’s reform program, said that when he heard about the accident, “I didn’t want to believe it. She was always the best, just smart . . . and acerbic and nice.”

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Day Higuchi, who took over the UTLA presidency from Bernstein last June after serving as her vice president for two terms, said he had talked to her Thursday morning.

“The mayor wants to have a big effect on the Los Angeles school system, but it’s really important that the person advising him understand the schools,” Higuchi said. "[Without Helen] I’m sure there are some things that should have been done that won’t be done and some things that shouldn’t be done that will be. But now we’ll never know.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin called Bernstein “a brave, courageous, caring, intelligent leader who was really at the forefront in wanting to change education for children. She cared about standards and credibility and fought for the best for kids.”

Eastin recalled that when she chaired the state Assembly Education Committee as a member of the Legislature, Bernstein insisted that she come to Los Angeles to visit schools. Bernstein took Eastin to the school where she taught, John Marshall High, where Bernstein was beloved.

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“She came across as somebody who was tough but she had the original heart of gold when it came to kids,” Eastin said.

School board member David Tokofsky, a former Marshall High teacher elected to the board in 1995 with strong United Teachers-Los Angeles support, said late Thursday, “She was all heart, all passion and heart for what she was doing. . . . Everywhere she went, whether it was counseling or the union, she unleashed other people’s passion, too. The entire teaching force was impassioned by her.”

Bernstein became UTLA president in 1990 and was known as an activist, a firebrand and a feisty adversary of the district.

She was a product of Los Angeles schools and graduated from Hamilton High School in 1962. At UCLA she was active in civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

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She worked for a congressman after college, but was frustrated because she felt she was not as effective as she wanted to be in helping to bring about change.

She decided to teach and in 1967 became a history teacher and counselor. She eventually married another teacher and union activist. The couple had one daughter and the marriage ended in divorce.

She became involved in union activities, and when she was UTLA vice president she served as a member of the negotiating team during a nine-day strike in 1989. As a result of the strike, the teachers obtained a 24% pay raise over three years.

Bernstein left the union in 1996 to head a new nationwide network on teachers unions dedicated to nurturing school reform.

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She was one of 51 candidates who qualified last month to vie for posts on a 15-seat panel to overhaul the city’s 72-year-old governing charter.

A ballot measure will ask voters to create the panel to rewrite the charter that many city officials contend is out of date.

Riordan, who has led the petition drive, endorsed 10 candidates, including Bernstein.

Times staff writers Richard Lee Colvin, Amy Pyle and Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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