Mayor Richard Riordan on Friday launched his most direct challenge ever to the Los Angeles Unified School District's ruling establishment, promising to wage and finance a campaign to unseat four incumbent board members.
Over the past few weeks, Riordan has been quietly meeting with a mayoral task force of about 30 business officials, community representatives and others. Its purpose: to identify four candidates prepared to run for the school board next year. If successful, it could result in a new school board majority because the panel consists of seven members.
"The task force has asked me to come up with . . . candidates to run against the four incumbents who are running next April," Riordan said in an interview Friday. "This will be the prime effort of the task force for the next month-and-a-half, to find candidates who are dedicated to helping children, who are passionate about helping children."
That places Riordan and his still-fluid task force squarely at odds with the four incumbents up for reelection: David Tokofsky, Jeff Horton, Barbara Boudreaux and George Kiriyama. In the past, Riordan has called for an "education revolution" and has criticized the school board. He once memorably charged that its members "lack the mental equipment to lead."
But this is the first time he has gone so far as to wage a political campaign against them.
Tokofsky, who narrowly won election in his largely Latino district and is a frequent critic of the school district bureaucracy, said he would be glad to step aside if the mayor comes up with an opponent who knows the school district and has a clear vision of the changes needed in curriculum and instruction.
"I have a 5-week-old baby," Tokofsky said. "I would be more than happy to concentrate on her reading development. . . . I'd increase my income by becoming a teacher again."
However, Tokofsky said he fears that the mayor's initiative will only repeat futile battles of the past over power and governance.
"What is the agenda of the revolution?" Tokofsky asked. "If it's changing reading scores from the 18th percentile to the 50th, I'm there. But if it's about who controls, that's been a distraction for 10 years now away from curriculum and results."
Board member George Kiriyama said he will take on the mayor's candidate.
"I figure, 'Why should I just drop dead because he's going to provide all the money against me?' " Kiriyama said.
The former teacher and principal also lashed back at Riordan for never bringing his complaints to the board members in person.
"I would like to know why is he opposing me personally and what is it that I am not doing," Kiriyama said. "I think it's only fair that if he is going to challenge me, he should tell me what areas where I have not fulfilled my obligations."
The president of the union representing the district's administrators also criticized the mayor, saying he is not qualified to judge school board members.
"I'd be more impressed if his record was a little better," said Eli Brent, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. "He was talking all the time, if he had control of the MTA it would be better. He did get control of it and I don't see much improvement."
In announcing his intention to run candidates against the incumbents, Riordan reiterated his long-standing criticism of the school district, which he accused of failing the area's children. Among the "multiple sins of the LAUSD," Riordan said, none is more serious than the board's unwillingness to let its superintendent have freer reign, particularly to fire.
One task force member said that Genethia Hayes, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Los Angeles chapter, already has received the group's support for her expected challenge to Boudreaux.
In theory, incumbent school board members could vie for the task force's endorsement, but the group seems determined to make dramatic change in the school board and thus seems unlikely to back existing members for reelection.
In addition to Riordan, who convened the task force, other members include officials from Sony, the Getty Center, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Megatoys, UCLA and other institutions. Bill Ouchi, a UCLA management professor who once served as Riordan's chief of staff, is a member, as is Ted Mitchell, who is Riordan's special advisor on educational issues. Other prominent members include retired UCLA Chancellor Charles Young, Arco Chief Executive Officer Mike Bowlin and Loyola professor Fernando Guerra.
The task force's candidates would enjoy at least one significant benefit in preparing for their campaigns. They could reliably expect to receive campaign contributions from the task force members.
"Certainly, if you're trying to get someone to dedicate their life to this, you should be willing to support them," Riordan said.
Beyond backing Hayes to run against Boudreaux, the task force has yet to identify other possible candidates. Riordan said the group's members each have been asked to come up with suggestions and bring them back to the task force for it to consider.
In some cases, the group's selections may face tough competition. Tokofsky, for instance, enjoys strong support in many quarters, including among the city's elected Latino leadership. He is also expected to win the support of the district's teachers union.
United Teachers-Los Angeles President Day Higuchi said Tokofsky and Kiriyama have been dependable votes for the union, and, assuming they win union endorsement, 'if God himself ran a candidate against them, we'd defend them."
Moreover, Riordan's track record at putting his chosen candidates into office is not a great one. He backed Ted Stein for city attorney last year and spoke out several times on Stein's behalf, only to see Stein thoroughly defeated by incumbent James Hahn.
The mayor and his political allies tried to come up with a candidate to run against Councilwoman Rita Walters but could not. And when the mayor's endorsement of a group of candidates for the city's elected charter commission ran up against organized labor-backed opponents, the unions trounced the mayor.
Riordan will be seeking candidates for a job that is high on duty but low on remuneration. By state law, school board members are paid $24,000 annually, although two commissions looking at overhauling the City Charter are considering raises. For their salaries, they sit through lengthy meetings two to three times a week and are docked for any meeting they miss.
With bare-bones staffs, they struggle to hold their own against a labyrinthine bureaucracy, relentless union pressure and the harangues of countless critics.
While, in theory, they serve part time, the seven board members generally show up at their offices five days a week. After hours they frequently shuttle from school to school across their far-flung districts to attend special events. And the more diligent spend a good part of their weekends poring over agenda packets that are routinely half a foot thick, chock full of minutiae on everything from the expulsion of students to the spending of millions of dollars on consultants.