Forces Behind the Vote

Times Staff Writer

Their names may not appear on the ballot, but their influence in the Los Angeles school board elections is undeniable.

On one side is the Coalition for Kids, a civic organization backed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad. On the other is the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a union with 47,000 members. Through cash, manpower and campaign material, the two sides are mobilizing again for the March 4 primary election, in which four of the board’s seven seats are up for grabs.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 19, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
School board elections -- An article in Sunday’s California section about the Los Angeles school board elections incorrectly identified John Regis Kuhn as one of three candidates in the San Fernando Valley-based District 3. Kuhn filed papers to run, but he did not receive the necessary number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. The candidates in that district are incumbent Caprice Young and Jon M. Lauritzen.

The four incumbents seeking reelection -- Caprice Young, Genethia Hudley-Hayes, Mike Lansing and David Tokofsky -- were all part of the Riordan-backed reform slate that altered the balance of power on the board in 1999.


This time, the faceoff is more complicated because of the coalition’s split with Tokofsky and support of his opponent, Nellie Rios-Parra.

The union supports Tokofsky, along with Young’s rival, Jon Lauritzen, and Hudley-Hayes’ opponent, Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Lansing has the coalition’s support, but the union declined to endorse his opponent, Gilbert Carillo.

The two groups are by far the largest contributors to the campaigns. In recent filings and interviews, the coalition reports it has spent $288,000 on school board candidates, while the teachers union reports donating $330,000 to its slate. Those figures are expected to increase significantly before March 4.

Such support is particularly important in Young’s and Tokofsky’s strongly contested races because redistricting radically changed their constituencies.

The election comes at a time when the Los Angeles Unified School District faces an estimated $480 million in budget cuts over the next 18 months, which worries the union because contract negotiations are scheduled for 2004.

The nation’s second-largest school district also is being closely watched to see if it can overcome past embarrassments in school construction as it plans to build 120 campuses.

Riordan said the impetus for the Coalition for Kids was to counter the union influence on the board since the 1980s, which he blames for the district’s underachievement.

“I believe in the children,” the former mayor said in a phone interview from Barcelona, Spain, where he is traveling with Broad. “I would die for the kids.”

He said his coalition wants “independent-minded” board candidates and hopes to “hold bureaucrats accountable.”

John Perez, president of UTLA, said the union is “forced by our own members to get involved politically because we see an extreme amount” of financial waste in the district. He also alleges that Riordan and Broad want to dominate the board for their own political interests.

Young, a former Riordan aide and computer executive, seeks to be reelected in District 3, which was centered in Hollywood but has been redrawn entirely in the San Fernando Valley, including West Valley communities, North Hollywood and Studio City, where she lives.

Young, 37, said she is not bothered by the change, contending that every community in the school district ultimately has the same concern: the children. But her opponents, and some colleagues, say she is undergoing a transformation to improve her chances of reelection. They cite her recent proposal to split the district into 10 to 30 smaller entities, a plan that is popular in the Valley. Young said she has been interested in a breakup all along and has continued to pitch more school autonomy.

Young said her priorities are to attract quality teachers, bolster after-school programs and find a way to cap middle and high school classes at 30 students. A recording of Riordan urging voters to elect her is being phoned to homes. A coalition official said the group has spent about $88,000 on campaign mailings for Young.

The union sees Young as its best opportunity to unseat an incumbent who has clashed with the union. By Jan. 18, the latest date for which records are available, UTLA had spent $154,000 on the campaign of Lauritzen, a former Valley teacher who lost Assembly bids in 1996 and 2000.

Lauritzen, 64, has run ads on cable television blaming Young for increased class sizes and raising salaries for administrators. He opposes breaking up the district, wants to reduce class sizes and seeks ways to get retired teachers back to work, alleviating overcrowding in the 730,000-student district.

A third candidate, Hale Middle School teacher John Regis Kuhn, did not return phone calls seeking an interview.

As they have done in the past, ethnic issues may dominate the race in District 5. Tokofsky, who is white and Jewish, faces three Latino candidates in the district, which is centered in East L.A. and includes wealthier areas in the Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz.

Through redistricting, Tokofsky lost his East Valley area and gained Southeast cities such as Bell, Huntington Park and Vernon, which add more Latinos and African Americans to his constituency.

Many political observers suggest that Rios-Parra, Jose Sigala and Maria Lou Calanche will split the Latino vote, but that one of them will land in a runoff against Tokofsky. Then the Latino vote will become more focused and the incumbent may have a more difficult time.

A former teacher who led Marshall High School’s academic decathlon team to a national championship, Tokofsky first came to office in 1995 with the support of UTLA. Tokofsky, 42, has been quick to point out the school district’s financial waste and environmental concerns, as he did with his early opposition to the Belmont Learning Complex, now stalled by pollution and seismic problems. He also has gained enemies for leaking information to the press and is described as unpredictable.

Four years ago, Riordan financially backed Tokofsky after the former mayor’s first choice lost in the primary. But late last year, Broad discussed having Occidental College President Theodore R. Mitchell run against Tokofsky and Broad’s possibly giving the college $10 million. Mitchell declined to run and Broad denied the money had been offered as a quid quo pro.

Broad did not answer a request for an interview last week.

Riordan said the coalition does not want to back a non-Latino candidate who appears to be in a losing position. “I like David Tokofsky, and he cares about kids, but he has zero chance of winning this race,” Riordan said.

Tokoksky, in turn, said: “A lot of people thought that Riordan was going to get elected governor, including me, and I was wrong and I hope he’s wrong about me too.”

The coalition has countered UTLA’s $30,000 donation to Tokofsky’s campaign by giving Rios-Parra $50,000, a coalition official said. Rios-Parra, a 35-year-old Lennox School District teacher, said she would make sure Los Angeles schools are being built without delay, entice more qualified teachers into the district and try to involve more parents in school matters.

Sigala, an aide to Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), says he wants to bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor. The 33-year-old has garnered the influential endorsement of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and says he can win the seat without help from Riordan or UTLA.

Calanche, 34, is a doctoral student at USC and a teacher at East Los Angeles College. She says she wants the district to influence the state to increase educational spending and says she can bridge divisions between unions and public officials.

In District 1, a predominantly African American and Latino area in South L.A. and the mid-city area, Hudley-Hayes had coalition and union support four years ago. But she fell out of favor with the union when she resisted pay increases that she said the district could not afford. The 57-year-old former educator and civil rights leader stresses the district’s recent accomplishments, such as the passage of a $3.35-billion school construction bond and the rise in last year’s elementary grades test scores to above the national average for the first time. The coalition has so far given her $100,000 to help her in a district that was not changed much by redistricting.

Her opponent, LaMotte, was principal at Washington Prep High from 1991 to 2001. She has received $151,000 in donations from UTLA and said that, if elected, she will seek to speed up reform. She said bureaucracy has adversely affected the classroom and she wants to find ways to hire more qualified teachers.

District 7 in the Harbor and South Bay area could be an easy victory for Lansing, who has garnered $50,000 from the coalition. Lansing, 46, said the school district has made great strides during his first term and he will continue the efforts. Union officials said they decided not to endorse Lansing’s opponent, Carillo, because they do not think he can beat the incumbent. Carillo, 37, a tax auditor for the State Board of Equalization, says he will bring fiscal responsibility to the district.