Union Choices Fare Well on School Boards

Times Staff Writers

Taking a page from earlier wins in Los Angeles and Redondo Beach, teachers unions racked up victories in several school board races in this week's local elections.

The most notable was in Compton, where union-backed candidates on Tuesday captured all six seats that were up for grabs on the seven-member board. All the winners also were backed by political strategist Basil Kimbrew, who resigned his own seat on the board last year after pleading no contest to lying about his residence. The result led some to raise questions on Wednesday about the district's ability for reform.

In Manhattan Beach, where anger over money troubles cost both incumbents on the ballot their seats on the school board, union-backed candidate Bill Cooper was the top vote-getter, but parent volunteer Amy Howorth edged past the union's other pick, teacher Tecia Barton, to capture the second seat on the five-member board.

Overall, it was a tough day for incumbents in a spate of local elections around Los Angeles County. Many officeholders lost -- or nearly lost -- their seats, according to unofficial returns tallied Tuesday night.

Some ballots remain to be counted, but it appears voters tossed out at least one incumbent in several school districts, including Azusa, Baldwin Park, Beverly Hills, Lynwood, Monrovia and Temple City.

Voters also gave the boot to several city council members. In Hawthorne, for example, they turned out Councilman Mark Schoenfeld but kept Mayor Larry Guidi and Councilwoman Ginny Lambert. Rancho Palos Verdes voters, who approved a council term-limits measure, retired council members John McTaggart and Barbara Ferraro but reelected Douglas Stern.

Some races were heart-stoppingly close. With an unknown number of ballots remaining to be tallied, Hermosa Beach Councilman Sam Edgerton held a two-vote margin over his nearest challenger, Howard Fishman.

Analysts attribute the number of upsets and close calls in part to the same sour mood that led to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis last month and the election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him.

"Arnold made the argument it was time to turn away from politics as usual and time to elect an outsider," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development. "I do think that had resonance in the local elections also."

Jeffe noted other factors that can contribute to an incumbent's defeat, among them underestimating a challenger, becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal and facing a well-organized, well-financed opponent.

Suspicions of political corruption do not necessarily spell defeat, however. In Lynwood, Councilman Louis Byrd was reelected, despite revelations that he and others had used city credit cards for lavish trips and other expenses. Councilman Arturo Reyes, however, was defeated.

The first-place finisher for one of two council seats, teacher Leticia Vasquez, who ran on a reform platform, came under question Wednesday because of her alleged ties with Byrd and former Councilman Paul Richards, who was recalled in September.

While running as a reformer, Vasquez appeared in mailers on a slate of candidates that included Byrd, and Richards attended her home victory party Tuesday night, arousing suspicion among some residents.

Vasquez on Wednesday denied links with Byrd and Richards, saying her name had appeared on the mailers without her permission; she asserted her independence and commitment to "restoring integrity to city government."

Teachers union-backed candidates won in several districts, including -- besides Manhattan Beach and Compton -- the Centinela Valley Union High School District, where Rafael Ramirez, 18, won a seat, and school counselor Jorge Arroyo defeated incumbent Ernest Chacon.

Union candidates did not prevail in some other districts, among them Hawthorne.

On Wednesday, union leaders defended their candidates' presence in school board races.

"It benefits students, parents and the entire community when teachers are involved in electing school board candidates," said Mike Myslinski of the California Teachers Assn. "Teachers know what works, and they want school board candidates who will listen to their ideas."

United Teachers of Los Angeles regained its political clout on the seven-member Los Angeles Unified School District board in March. Three union-backed candidates won, defeating incumbents Caprice Young and Genethia Hudley-Hayes, both supported by a political action organization backed by former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad.

That same month, a South Bay teachers union helped elect a new majority to the governing board of the Redondo Beach Unified School District.

In Compton, where the teachers union candidates won every seat, the new board members will have their work cut out for them. Classes are overcrowded, test scores are still low, teacher turnover is high and Centennial High School was stripped of its academic accreditation in August. The district regained control over its affairs less than a year ago after the state ran the low-performing district for years.

"I think we could call this a new beginning," said Tom Hollister, head of the Compton Education Assn. "We certainly want it to be."

Incumbent Cloria Patillo, who did not have union support, lost.

Among the handful of ballot measures was Malibu's Measure M, a complex development agreement with Malibu Bay Co., the seaside city's largest landholder. It was decisively defeated.

The City Council vigorously backed the measure, saying it would give the city a chance to buy a prime civic center parcel for a park and a much-needed underground waste-water treatment facility. But opponents said the measure would force voters into too quickly deciding complicated development choices.

Times staff writers Martha Groves and Richard Marosi contributed to this report.

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