Focus Is on Change in School Board Race


For all their differences, the school board candidates in Los Angeles Unified's 4th District trumpet a similar theme: fix the broken system.

The four contenders in this highly competitive race are casting themselves as agents of change, even as they offer few hard details to solve the school district's many problems.

There is the real estate developer who wants to get schools built quickly. The teacher-training expert who promises an emergency recruitment drive. The retired math teacher who urges more rights for parents. And the incumbent who is bent on rooting out bureaucratic waste.

Three candidates are well-financed by divergent interests--notably the Los Angeles teachers union and Mayor Richard Riordan, who has dumped one candidate in favor of another.

The contest in the 4th District--which consists of the Westside and the west San Fernando Valley--is one of three races for the Board of Education. But it is notable for having three viable contenders able to spend lavishly on campaigns that could cost as much as $1 million.

Those who watch local school politics say that it offers a rarity in elections of this kind: distinct choices.

"This is a truly contested election in the best sense of the word," said Ted Mitchell, president of Occidental College and Riordan's chief education advisor. "There are three good candidates with different backgrounds and different ideas, all of whom are genuinely interested in reform."

Incumbent Valerie Fields casts herself as a watchdog who has tried to rein in spending and ensure that money reaches classrooms. During her first term on the school board, Fields said, she pushed for a hard look at the use of costly consultants and for a review of the district's legal office that has prompted a significant reorganization.

"I've been a reformer since the moment I stepped in that office," said Fields, 74, who taught elementary school in Los Angeles and served as former Mayor Tom Bradley's education advisor for 15 years.

Challengers have criticized Fields for being too cozy with the teachers union, her primary backer, and for being part of a school board that has failed to adequately serve the needs of students.

Fields' two chief rivals, developer Matthew Rodman and businesswoman Marlene Canter, are running as much against the existing school board--and Fields, by extension--as they are angling for her 4th District seat.

A recent Canter mailer made the point.

"The school board has let us down," Canter said in the piece that arrived at homes last week. "We are graduating students who lack basic math and reading skills. Like you, I am tired of excuses."

Canter, 52, says she is the most independent of the lot because she is largely financing her own campaign--so far, using $300,000 of her own fortune, which was made from a teacher training business that she founded and ran for 25 years.

The former special education teacher is promoting an "aggressive back to basics reform plan" that she says would provide every student with textbooks, encourage more parental involvement, expand charter schools and enact an emergency teacher recruitment drive.

"I live and breathe education," she said. "I know I have something to offer."

Rodman, 32, sees overcrowding and forced busing as the district's underlying problems. By building schools quickly and efficiently, the district can return students to neighborhood campuses and foster greater parental involvement, he said.

"I think every other issue is tied to getting schools back in neighborhoods," said Rodman, who attended private schools for most of his youth and now runs a family-owned real estate company that builds retail shopping centers in the Los Angeles area. "I have the experience to get us on track."

Rodman enjoys the backing of the mayor, who has tapped the political newcomer once before for a public post. Last year, Riordan appointed Rodman to a new citizens planning commission panel that presides over development issues on the Westside. Rodman is president of the group.

Rodman's involvement with students stems largely from his volunteer work as an advisor with the Explorer Scouts program at the Los Angeles Police Department's West Los Angeles station. Rodman said he has raised $150,000 over the last five years to help his Scouts pay for college.

The race has one additional candidate, retired math teacher Rick Selan. He expects to raise a few thousand dollars and is considered a longshot for the seat.

The most potent force in the election, however, may not be any of the candidates. It may very well be Riordan and the money he controls.

The mayor engineered victories for three school board candidates two years ago. His fund-raising committee, Coalition for Kids, spent more than $1 million on those successful campaigns.

This time, Riordan is endorsing not only Rodman but candidates in the two other school board races--one in the Valley and another on the Eastside. And Riordan's committee has once again raised more than $1 million for his candidates, although the money is only now beginning to trickle to them.

Mayor Switches Endorsements

Riordan has brought an additional degree of uncertainty to the Westside election by switching allegiances midstream. The mayor endorsed Fields last summer, but withdrew his support in January after Fields refused to vote against a substantial raise for teachers. Riordan objected to the size of the raise because he feared that it would hurt core educational programs.

Fields said she will miss the resources Riordan can marshal, calling the loss a "million-dollar handicap." Some of Riordan's closest advisors, meanwhile, have second-guessed his endorsement of Rodman, saying that the mayor should have interviewed the more experienced Canter before making a decision.

The mayor did meet with Canter two weeks ago--a month after his Rodman endorsement--at the urging of advisors who consider her to be a credible force. But an aide said the mayor remains committed to Rodman.

Among the three major contenders, Canter is leading the way with a media blitz. Canter has been running TV ads on cable channels in the district since late February. And last weekend she sent slick, six-page mailers to district households. The media campaign touts her as "an educator and independent reformer for our schools."

Canter said she will commit a minimum $400,000 of her own money for the April 10 primary. She is also raising money from other sources.

Fields has raised about $250,000 on her own so far, with the teachers union contributing an additional $150,000, her consultant said. The union is providing significant additional support: sending absentee ballot applications to the households of 20,000 teachers and labor members in the district, paying for 6,000 lawn signs and staffing phone banks. The union's members also are walking precincts for Fields and incumbent Julie Korensten in the Valley.

Fields, as well, is falling back on her broad base of support nurtured during three decades in public life. Her endorsement list includes three Los Angeles County supervisors, eight City Council members, and a throng of judges, state legislators and members of Congress.

Fields doubts that she can match the fund-raising power of the other two candidates, but remains confident. "I think we can win this race without having to compete ad for ad," she said.

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