Teachers Union Wins Back the Power in L.A. Schools

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles teachers union is once again a dominant force in the nation's second-largest school district, with the potential to dramatically reshape policy after helping to topple two powerful Board of Education incumbents.

The turnaround signals the declining influence of former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad, who four years ago helped elect a new reform-minded school board. In Tuesday's election, two of the three union candidates won outright against candidates supported by Riordan and Broad and a union-backed incumbent was leading, though he might wind up in a runoff.

The change on the seven-member board is likely to complicate upcoming labor negotiations and focus budget cuts on administrative costs instead of classroom spending.

Schools Supt. Roy Romer, who was hired by the now-ousted majority, said Wednesday that he intends to stay in his job and help the new board members face an immediate challenge when they take office in July: steep state budget cuts.

That will not be easy since at least two of Tuesday's winners are pledging to win teachers adequate raises and reduce class sizes in grades four through 12 -- steps other officials say the district cannot afford.

But Romer said he would work to keep the board's attention on such issues as new school construction and higher student achievement.

"The debate now is going to be how to do it," Romer said. "And I'm not even thinking about leaving," he said.

In the 1999 election, financial support from Riordan and Broad helped offset labor's long-held clout, which they contended had contributed to the district's financial and academic problems, as has been the experience in other big cities.

But in recent months, the teachers union cast the two wealthy men as self-interested meddlers. By Tuesday, it had successfully mobilized both funds and a base of union members against two incumbents, board President Caprice Young and Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who were part of the Riordan-Broad slate in 1999.

The union also helped incumbent David Tokofsky, against whom Riordan and Broad had tried to recruit challengers, become the largest vote-getter in his district against three challengers. However, by Wednesday night Tokofsky's vote total was just shy of a majority, although some official Web sites had not been updated and still showed him garnering 51%. It was unclear whether he would avoid a runoff with Nellie Rios-Parra, a coalition-backed candidate. About 1,200 absentee votes remained uncounted from Maywood and Huntington Park, parts of the school district outside the city of Los Angeles, officials said.

Former Canoga Park High School teacher Jon Lauritzen beat Young by a two-to-one ratio in a recently redrawn voting district in the San Fernando Valley. Also with union support, former high school principal Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte eked out a narrow victory over Hudley-Hayes in a south Los Angeles district.

Incumbent board member Mike Lansing, who ran against a little-known rival who lacked union support, was the only winning candidate backed by the Coalition for Kids, the political action committee funded by Riordan and Broad.

John Perez, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, said that his union's victories vindicated teachers and parents and showed the public's desire to see more money spent on improving student achievement.

"I'm hoping that what will happen between now and July is that these candidates will come forward and start asking us about the important issues of the district," said Perez.

But some critics are concerned that the union could exert undo influence on the board. If Tokofsky holds on and current board member Julie Korenstein stays on the board, the union would have a majority. Korenstein, however, is in a runoff for a City Council seat and would leave the board if she wins in May.

"I think it's bad public policy for any teachers union to control the school board. I see this as a real setback for education reform," said Arnold Steinberg, a consultant who advised the Coalition for Kids when it triumphed in 1999 but had no role in this year's races.

"It's regrettable that they now control both sides of the negotiating table."

In an interview after the election, Riordan called the defeat of Hudley-Hayes and Young "very sad for the school district." But he said that the coalition will remain involved in local politics.

"I'm going to continue to fight for reforms in whatever way I can. I think the children have been cheated," he said.

Newly elected board members said they would push for changes.

LaMotte has said she would consider raising teachers' pay after taking office and Lauritzen has already pledged to fight for a 6% increase.

Lauritzen also said he wants to dismantle the bureaucracy and improve vocational education.

The success of United Teachers-Los Angeles in Tuesday's election was attributed in part to its willingness to outspend the Coalition for Kids. The union spent about $1.4 million, and the coalition about $1.1 million.

Speaking from her election party Tuesday night, Hudley-Hayes said that she had asked Riordan and Broad for more money, but that they turned her away.

"They told me they didn't have any more money," Hudley-Hayes said.

By the end, the teachers union gave LaMotte $509,000, much of it after the official campaign disclosure filing period and five times what Hudley-Hayes received from the coalition. Altogether, LaMotte had twice the amount of money that Hudley-Hayes had, enabling her to defend herself against charges that she shared the blame for Washington Preparatory High School's poor academic standing when she was principal there from 1991 to 2001. Union money also allowed LaMotte and Lauritzen to portray their opponents as failed incumbents.

"I just think this is about payback. They always say the coalition controls the board, but [UTLA] wants to control the board," Hudley-Hayes said. "The only reason UTLA was unhappy with [me and Caprice Young] was because we voted for class size increases and against teacher salary raises."

The "reform board" backed by the Coalition for Kids brought a corporate style to the school district, hiring executives from private development firms to reorganize L.A. Unified's facilities division and outside consultants to work on legal matters and instructional programs. Faced with state budget cuts last year, board members who were backed by the coalition voted to increase class sizes in grades four through 12. That enraged the unions.

Political consultants said Wednesday that Young hurt her chances at reelection during remapping of districts last year. After losing her East Hollywood base, she and the coalition pushed hard for a San Fernando Valley district in which 85% of her constituents were new. Political consultants said those voters saw her as a political carpetbagger and took out on her residual outrage over the Valley's failed bid for secession. Her proposal to break up the enormous school district did not assuage those feelings, the analysts suggested.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction L.A. school board -- A headline in Thursday's Section A about the teachers union's influence on the Los Angeles Board of Education incorrectly stated that labor has a majority of backers on the board as a result of Tuesday's election. The seven-seat board will have at least two union-backed members. A third candidate supported by the union, incumbent David Tokofsky, may face a runoff in May. A fourth board member with union support, Julie Korenstein, would leave the board if she wins a May runoff for a City Council seat.
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