Brothers Glen and Gary Forsch were discussing rare motorcycle bolts with a customer in their Sun Valley hardware store when the conversation turned to education.
Customer George Buzzetti told the brothers how appalled he was that his girlfriend's son attended a public school in Bellflower that did not have enough books for all its students.
The brothers, owners of a family business that opened in 1921, then shared stories about high school students who apply for jobs in the store and how ill-prepared the youths are compared with those in the 1970s.
The trio joined forces in 1995 and created a nonprofit organization, the Assn. for Accountability and Equitable Education, that serves as a watchdog for public education and helps mostly low-income families obtain hard-to-find information from area school districts.
The association teaches parents how to obtain and read complicated financial statements, refers them to experts when their children have problems in school and closely monitors how Los Angeles County school districts spend billions of dollars each year.
"We're here to help people understand what's going on, to teach them to speak up and be informed," said Glen Forsch, 53, who graduated from Francis Polytechnic High in Sun Valley and UC San Diego.
They do it because they believe many students are getting shortchanged by the system. And when poorly educated children become adults, they will have a negative effect on the community, they said.
"If a kid doesn't get a good education, I'm going to lose," said Gary Forsch, 50, who also attended Poly High. "It boils down to would I rather him or her be successful in the community or do I want to pay thousands of dollars a year to keep him in jail?"
The brothers run the organization out of Roscoe Hardware, one of the oldest and last family owned hardware stores in the San Fernando Valley. About 12 volunteers help staff the group, which receives about $300 annually in private donations.
The backbone of the association is Buzzetti, a heavy-set man of 54 who jokingly calls himself a "pit bull" because he is constantly scrutinizing the Los Angeles Unified School District's financial records and digging around for suspected wrongdoing.
Buzzetti, who owns a lighting business not far from Roscoe Hardware, is a regular at Los Angeles school board meetings and has testified before an Assembly education committee on various issues, including alleged misappropriation of funds by principals.
"I've done research from all over the state and the deeper you go it becomes almost an addiction," said Buzzetti, sporting a blue Hawaiian shirt and leafing through an LAUSD 2000-01 provisional budget during a recent interview at a Sun Valley coffee shop.
Among its services, the association conducts financial analyses of district expenditures, informs parents of policies regarding such issues as special education, links children who are failing in school with tutoring services and helps teachers deal with difficult administrators.
"George taught me to use county materials to get information and ask, 'Why is this happening, why is this money being spent on this?' " said Reyna Akers, whose daughter, Nadine, attended special eduction classes in the Long Beach Unified School District.
Akers is an advocate for other parents with special-needs children and regularly attends school board meetings in Los Angeles and Long Beach, where she often collaborates with Buzzetti.
"If he can get in their face, he's there," she said. "He's helped a lot of people."
Los Angeles school board member Julie Korenstein, who represents the central San Fernando Valley, said the Assn. for Accountability and Equitable Education is a fearless advocate for children and their families.
"They ask things that staff doesn't want brought up, they stop and question what's going on in the district, and that's a good thing," Korenstein said. "They will seek out a multitude of issues without hesitation."
The group also works in conjunction with other activists who specialize in safety and environment to ensure laws are being followed in schools.
When the association found that security grills installed on windows at hundreds of schools in the LAUSD would not break away in an emergency, it successfully lobbied to replace them.
When a contract for millions of dollars in new air-conditioning systems at dozens of Los Angeles district campuses revealed the recommended noise level would exceed standards, the association got involved.
The activists are now working to reach an agreement with the district to lower the noise limits in the contract before the units are installed.
"Noise level affects kids who are hearing-impaired and kids with learning disabilities, as well as kids in which English is a second language," said Gene Krischer, 54, an activist who works closely with the association.
Krischer, who sports a goatee and wears a black beret over long dreadlocks, also is a regular at LAUSD board meetings. The UCLA graduate has challenged officials on a variety of environmental and safety issues through the years.
"We're watching and they don't like it," he said between cigarette puffs.
To spread word of its mission, the association broadcasts a monthly TV program called "Education Watch," which airs throughout Los Angeles County on public access cable channels.
Past segments have examined Los Angeles district policies on crime and finances, detailed instructions on how to obtain specific documents and where to go if the district refuses to provide requested information.
Buzzetti said he believes just knowing he is around keeps school officials in check.
"We may not get a complete victory, but when they know we're out there, that we're watching, something happens," he said. "It changes their behavior."