Moved by widespread dissatisfaction with the course of public education, a lineup of challengers came forward this week with the will and resources to turn the campaign for Los Angeles Board of Education into the most tumultuous since the anti-busing days of the late 1970s.
The field of 13 candidates for four seats includes contenders in every race who may match the incumbents in spending. Three of those challengers are backed by Mayor Richard Riordan, who has promised to deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate financing, setting up the possibility of one or more upsets.
A fourth challenger who was spurned by the mayor is nonetheless gearing up a well-backed campaign against Riordan’s one chosen incumbent.
Although the mayor has yet to articulate a specific agenda for his candidates, his promise to deliver campaign funds is already altering the political landscape by challenging the dominance of union money in the customarily backwater races.
At the same time, Riordan is wading into the volatile politics of race by attempting to unseat two minority board members while supporting a white incumbent in a largely Latino district.
However, while racial divisions drove school politics two decades ago, today a deep dissatisfaction with public education is raising a chorus of voices demanding change. With a majority of board seats up for grabs, many view the April 13 election as a pivotal moment for the nation’s second-largest school district.
“The prevailing assessment of this district is that it’s like a drug addict who’s hit rock bottom--we’re at the edge of some big changes one way or another,” said civil rights activist Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission.
“We’re talking about the future of public education,” said Harold Williams, president emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “Unless we can get our arms around demonstrable student achievement, the advocates of everything from secession to vouchers will gain a further head of steam.”
Highlighting the unusual corporate interest in the race, Williams is leading a group of prominent business leaders who will weigh in with “talking papers” on school reform to help voters make their choices.
With public education poised as the No. 1 issue for the state’s voters, the challengers are holding the fractious school board responsible for the lackluster performance of the 697,000-student district.
The incumbents defend their records, saying that the reforms they instituted are now taking effect and that they should be allowed to see them through.
Riordan Promises Financial Backing
Riordan has only spoken broadly about what he expects of his candidates. He wants the board to adopt a more corporate style and to fire those who don’t measure up to standards. His chosen candidates all said he has given them no prescriptions.
While they do not present themselves as a slate, Riordan’s candidates are set apart as top contenders by virtue of the political money--possibly a quarter of a million dollars or more per race--that the mayor has promised.
In what is bound to be a volatile campaign, incumbent Barbara Boudreaux, a retired Los Angeles school principal who is seeking a third term representing South-Central Los Angeles, has accused Riordan of “plantation politics” for “targeting me, a black woman, with another black woman.”
The mayor’s pick is Genethia Hayes, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles and a consultant on developing parent partnerships with public education agencies.
“The mayor will try to buy this campaign by funding lots of television time and tons of fliers,” Boudreaux, 65, said. “I’m going to win with my grass-roots groups, my foot soldiers.”
The tough-speaking Boudreaux scoffed at suggestions that the board is in desperate need of new faces. She said the district is on the upswing with truancy and absenteeism going down and test scores going up.
Hayes, 53, who had launched her bid before Riordan offered his backing last fall, helped the district develop curriculum for preschool through third grade. In the mostly Latino district, Hayes hopes to forge what a supporter called “a newborn version of former Mayor Tom Bradley’s multiethnic coalitions.”
“Education for me is a civil rights issue,” Hayes said. “We certainly abridge children’s civil rights when we don’t educate them properly. How can they compete?”
The race for the Silver Lake/North Hollywood district pits Caprice Young, the mayor’s former assistant deputy, against Jeff Horton, the protege of City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who preceded him in the office.
Horton, 51, taught at Crenshaw High School for 14 years and won his first two terms with strong support from district unions.
Personally wounded by the mayor’s slight, he said he considers himself the leading proponent of the reforms the mayor advocates, pointing to his support for LEARN and standards-based curriculum.
“I am the one that introduced the motion to link the pay of senior staff with student outcomes,” he said.
Young, 33, is a consultant for IBM Global Services, helping businesses launch Internet marketing operations. As a board member she said she would lead the board in forming a strategic financial plan.
She said her educational perspective is that of a mother who wants her 3-year-old daughter to be able to attend a quality public school. She wants to rid the district of what she sees as a culture of low expectations for poor and minority students.
“That is a death sentence for kids,” she said.
The withdrawal of Riordan’s chosen Latino challenger in the district that arcs from Pacoima to Lincoln Heights set up an awkward alliance with incumbent David Tokofsky.
A former teacher who gained acclaim for leading the Marshall High School Academic Decathlon team to a national title, Tokofsky hardly fits the mayor’s profile of a corporate-styled director who sets policy and stays out of details.
Known for his minute knowledge and rapid-fire questioning of district officials, Tokofsky, 39, prides himself in fighting obfuscation on subjects such as textbook shortages, test scores and toxic contamination of school sites.
Conceding that the demographics favor his opponent, Tokofsky nonetheless has garnered endorsements from prominent Latinos, including Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).
Despite the mayor’s snub, challenger Yolie Flores Aguilar, 36, says she supports Riordan’s goals. She bills herself as a corporate-style leader who can set policy, evaluate administrators and build relationships.
“When there are consequences like firing people, that’s when you see changes,” she said.
The first Latino to be president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, Flores expects to build a war chest of up to $250,000 by drawing on her ties to community and social service groups.
Flores said she doesn’t plan to make race an issue, but will promote herself as a role model for Latino youths. She supports bilingual education and believes schools need to address community problems to reach disadvantaged students.
Mayor’s Action Called ‘Hostile Takeover’
In the contest for the seat on the board that represents the South Bay and Watts, former adult school Principal George Kiriyama, 67, is counting on his traditional support from organizations such as the Korean American Coalition and the 450-member Mexican-American Administrators Assn. to fight off the Riordan-backed challenge by Mike Lansing.
“We don’t have a lot of money to give, maybe $1,500 at most,” said Jose Velasquez, president of the association’s political action committee. “But George can also expect our members to be manning telephones for him, making precinct walks and supporting fund-raisers.”
Kiriyama aide Joe Ahn characterized Riordan’s intervention as “a hostile takeover with special-interest money” lacking a campaign strategy.
“They’ve got an agenda, and they are pushing it hard--they want control of the school district,” Ahn said.
Lansing, a 17-year parochial school teacher who now heads the Boys and Girls Club of San Pedro, said he decided to run because “throughout the district people are looking for change. They are tired of the same old rhetoric and the status quo.”
Lansing, 42, said he would “hold everyone accountable,” promote off-track and after-school intervention programs, fight for raises and training for teachers and ensure that all students have textbooks.
“I will also provide the leadership needed to stop infighting that is paralyzing the system,” he said.
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Here is the complete list of candidates for the Los Angeles Board of Education.
* District 1 (Crenshaw, South-Central): Barbara Boudreaux, incumbent; Moses Calhoun, teacher / mediator / author; Austin Dragon, employment recruiter; Genethia Hayes, education activist.
* District 3 (Silver Lake, West Hollywood and portions of North Hollywood): Jeff Horton, former Los Angeles Unified teacher; Caprice Young, mother / businesswoman; David Smith, handyman.
* District 5 (Eastern San Fernando Valley, Northeast Los Angeles): David Tokofsky, incumbent; Yolie Flores Aguilar, member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education; Violet DeWitt Staley, early childhood specialist.
* District 7 (Watts and South Bay): George Kiriyama, incumbent; Earl Raymond High, pastor / mechanic; Mike Lansing, child development professional.