Election Over, Board Turns to Budget Gap
The day after being reelected to a third term on the Los Angeles Board of Education, David Tokofsky had little time to savor the victory.
With a budget meeting today, he and other trustees said they were focused Wednesday on how the Los Angeles Unified School District will trim spending by nearly $400 million in the next few weeks without severely diminishing the classroom experience for students and working conditions for teachers.
“I think everybody realizes that this is the worst economy since the Great Depression in the schools,” said Tokofsky, who won 63% of the vote in Tuesday’s runoff against Nellie Rios-Parra for the board’s 5th District seat. “Necessity will have to be the mother of invention, because right now there’s no money for cost of living adjustments and that kind of thing.”
Tokofsky’s reelection means that four of the seven school board members were supported by the teachers union. Though the union will seek pay increases, Tokofsky and other district officials said raises are highly unlikely. Given the tough economics facing the nation’s second-largest school district, the union may need help simply to defend previous gains in such areas as health benefits.
“This is not a time when there’s any money for raises,” schools Supt. Roy Romer said. “We just have to keep it together. I’m not thinking of raises for anybody. I am trying to think about how we fill a $400-million hole.”
Union Downplays Ties
United Teachers-Los Angeles President John Perez declined to say Wednesday what raise the union will seek in upcoming negotiations. He also downplayed the effect on those talks of Tokofsky’s reelection and the victories in the March primary of two other candidates the union supported, Jon Lauritzen and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Julie Korenstein, who has had union support in the past, will remain on the board after losing a Los Angeles City Council runoff.
But Perez said he expects more cooperation between the union and the board and more communication about the needs of teachers and students.
“All we want is to talk to these people and put our case to them,” he said of the trustees. “Hopefully, they will listen to what we have to say before they make their votes. The other board wasn’t interested in that.”
Tokofsky, who received $315,000 in financial support from the union, cautioned that he will not be beholden to the group. He said late Tuesday that the union gave him half of the $784,000 raised by his campaign. “That means I’ll answer one out of two of their phone calls,” he joked.
Despite all the financial and contract pressures, Tokofsky said, he will work to ensure that the district proceeds with its major school construction plan and continues to improve standardized test scores. But the former teacher and Academic Decathlon coach also stressed the need to improve instruction and “restore the dignity of the teaching profession.”
Coalition for Kids
Rios-Parra was heavily supported by the Coalition for Kids, an education activist group led by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and financier Eli Broad. The coalition’s clout was on the rise until the March primary, in which two of its three candidates lost.
Riordan on Wednesday deflected questions about the coalition’s future, but said he hoped that the new board members would continue reforms. “I think they will,” he said. “I am an optimist.”
“It’s not whether Dick Riordan is successful or Perez or the union,” he added. “It’s about how the children are taught in the classroom.... If you have strong leadership in the classroom, if you hold teachers accountable and are willing to do that, the other things are unimportant.”
Rios-Parra fared better than Tokofsky in parts of the 5th District not in the city of L.A., including Bell, Huntington Park and Maywood. Tokofsky did very well in such Los Angeles areas as Silver Lake and Los Feliz, where voter turnout was stronger. Overall, fewer than 10% of registered voters cast ballots.
“Nellie had no roots,” Tokofsky said Tuesday night in a jab at the Coalition for Kids, which gave her campaign nearly $300,000. “She was Astroturf being imported in by the Westside.”
Wednesday, Rios-Parra said she hadn’t had time yet to analyze the election. “I guess what I want to say is that the tasks that lie before the school board are very diverse and need immediate attention,” she said. “But they need a unified board to make sure children come first and children’s academic needs are met.”
Jeannie Oakes, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, said there will be many pressures on the reconstituted school board, including the budget deficit, the push to transform L.A. Unified schools into independent charter schools, and the building of more than 80 campuses.
In that climate, good working relationships among administrators, school board members and the teachers union will be necessary, she said.
“The board and the administrators and the teachers have to come together to figure out how they are going to manage these cuts, how they are going to manage for a future, how they are going to relate to all of the problems that have yet to be solved,” she said.
“It’s such a challenge. It will be very sad if the history of the union and the administration [is of]being adversaries who are more interested in winning than they are in coming together to solve problems continues.”