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Two Vie Quietly to Head School Board

Times Staff Writer

The seven-member Los Angeles Board of Education meets today to select its new president at an unsettled moment, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seeking greater control over city schools and a new, feisty teachers union leadership taking power.

The public vote for president, who exercises considerable influence over the nation’s second-largest school system, belies weeks of strategic sotto voce lobbying by aspiring presidents and their supporters. It is a delicate process in which board members must balance efforts to secure their colleagues’ support against a state law that restricts elected officials from orchestrating public votes in private.

If past years are any indication, the meeting will be a diplomatic two-step as trustees discuss the pros and cons of choosing one colleague or another to steer the district. It can be an uncomfortable exchange, several current and former board members said.

“It’s an extraordinarily tense time,” said Caprice Young, a former board member and its president from 2001 through 2003. “Everyone likes to feel wanted, needed and loved. But that’s not necessarily the way democracy works.”

This year’s choice will be between Jon Lauritzen and Marlene Canter, the two board members who have expressed interest in the presidency, say other board members and teachers union officials.

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Unlike in previous years, however, when a clear front-runner often emerged in the weeks leading up to the vote, this year’s contest appears to be a tossup with a board that has no clear coalitions and members who have remained tight-lipped on how they plan to vote.

Lauritzen, elected to the board in 2003, said he is counting on the support of Julie Korenstein and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and hopes the current president, Jose Huizar, will cast the decisive vote. Board members are permitted to vote for themselves.

Canter, who is seen as an ally of Supt. Roy Romer and who was selected by Huizar as vice president for two years, declined to discuss how she expects to see the votes fall. But board observers say she has the backing of David Tokofsky and Mike Lansing.

Huizar, who is running for a seat on the City Council, said he had not decided whom to support before the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

“I have a lot of thinking to do,” Huizar said.

Adding to the suspense is the decision by United Teachers Los Angeles to remain neutral, despite having strongly supported Lauritzen in his campaign for election to the board. In past years, officers for the powerful teachers union have made it clear to board members whom they would like as president.

Huizar, for example, was unanimously selected in 2001 and 2002, with union support. “It’s no secret that we talked to board members” about the presidency, said former union president John Perez. “We thought Jose would make the best president, and we made that known to the other board members.”

A.J. Duffy, who replaced Perez last week, said he plans to focus less than his predecessor on influencing the internal politics of the board, adding that he would be content with either Lauritzen or Canter as president.

Whoever is chosen Tuesday will assume considerable responsibility at a critical time for the district.

In his inauguration speech last Friday, Villaraigosa reiterated his call to have a greater role in reforming the school district, a push that could dramatically change the school system, which is independent of City Hall.

Romer’s contract will be one of the first issues before the new board president. Because of a compromise when the contract was extended a year ago, the board must decide by October whether to keep him on for the last year of that contract, which expires in 2007.

Meanwhile, the district continues with its multibillion-dollar school construction project and efforts to boost test scores and high school graduation rates of its 740,000 students.

It is a heavy load for the part-time school board, especially for its president, who is responsible for leading notoriously unwieldy meetings, deciding when the board will vote on issues and trying to find middle ground on contentious matters. Board members are paid $24,000 a year; the president receives nothing extra.

If there were a posting for the job, it might read like this:

Wanted: Ambitious elected official with thick skin and calm demeanor to take charge of somewhat dysfunctional school board; must be able to massage fragile egos. Pay: Nothing. Benefits: Don’t ask.

With no formal policy in place on how to select a new president, the school board relies on tradition. Romer is expected to open the meeting Tuesday by soliciting nominations for president from board members. Each nomination must be seconded, and votes are eventually taken in the order the board members were nominated. Discussion of someone’s ability, or inability, to lead can take place any time during the meeting.

What is said before the meeting, however, is strictly limited by the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which forbids board members from privately lobbying a majority of their colleagues on an issue. The law also requires that the board vote publicly on most issues, including the presidency.

As a result, board members and their staffs have been left to guess about which colleagues are most likely to support them and to obliquely express their interest.

“I’ve just talked about the presidency,” Canter said. “I’m hoping it’s the will of the board to allow me the honor to serve as president.”

School board members vying to be president wield a strong bargaining chip, if they choose. The president has the authority to name his or her colleagues to head board committees, some more prestigious than others.

“You have to talk about committees,” said former school board member Victoria Castro, who was president in 1998-99. “I went to board members and said something like, ‘You know, I think your talents really are in curriculum. If I were president, I could really see you as chair of that committee.’ ”

The Brown Act’s restrictions places board members in an awkward position, several past and present members said. On the one hand, they are not allowed to campaign for the job; on the other, they are loath to have an honest discussion during the public meeting.

“A normal group of human beings would get together and discuss who among them is the best to lead,” said former board member Young. “But that is not a conversation that is pleasant to have in public.”

Too bad, said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware and a Brown Act expert. He dismissed the idea that board members should be allowed to select their leader in private.

Korenstein, first elected to the board in 1987, has attended 18 of these meetings to select a president.

“Hopefully,” she said, “it will be a peaceful meeting.”


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