Benefactor follows her heart

Imagine all the things you could buy if you had a spare $50 million under the mattress.

A yacht. A jet. A nice little getaway in Hawaii, and why not in New York, Rome and Paris as well?

A Palos Verdes Estates woman named Melanie Lundquist happened to have the extra $50 million, but she bought none of the above.

Instead, she called Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2007 and told him she wanted to give the money to some of the lowest-performing schools in Los Angeles Unified. She promised to write a $5-million check each of the next 10 years for his Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which took control of 10 campuses a year ago as part of the mayor's boast that he could do better than the district.

But those improvements are easier to promise than to produce, as this week's release of standardized test scores revealed, with the results a mixed bag of modest gains and just as many disappointments. Several weeks ago I wrote a column about teachers at eight of the 10 schools giving the partnership a "no-confidence" vote. They said they didn't have the decision-making power they were promised and that essentially, one bureaucracy had supplanted another.

At the time, I wondered how Lundquist was feeling about her investment. Give her a call, suggested Marshall Tuck, chief executive of the mayor's partnership.

And so I did.

I don't know if she's upbeat by nature, but Lundquist might as well have had pom poms the day we met at the Farmer's Market for lunch. She knew this would take time, she said, and neither the skepticism of teachers nor the lackluster test scores have given her pause.

"I believe this will become a model for national reform," said Lundquist, whose husband, Richard, owns a real estate development company whose holdings include the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco and numerous commercial buildings across Southern California.

So what exactly was the reason for a gift to schools that many have written off as irreparably broken?

"I went to public schools K through 12," said Lundquist, who went to Grant. Her husband also attended public schools in Los Angeles. "I got a free education, and there are 50 teachers I could name right now who were some of my best friends, and even after I graduated, they continued to be friends.

"I had a science teacher in 10th, 11th and 12th who would stay until 6 o'clock, working in the lab, and then drive all of us home. I've always regarded a good education as a foundation, without which you're marginalized and locked out of the economy."

And far too many kids, she said, simply don't have access to schools as good as the ones she attended.

Lundquist graduated from USC as a speech pathologist, but after marrying Richard, she decided to turn to philanthropy, inspired by Wallis Annenberg, among others. While waiting for a doctor's appointment one day, Lundquist read a Vanity Fair article titled "Rebel With a Purse," about New York City philanthropist Irene Diamond, and she became determined to support good causes.

Which ones?

Lots of them, and the Lundquists send fat checks here and there each year. But Melanie found her true passion after seeing Villaraigosa in 2005 at a political event and asking him what he'd focus on if he became mayor.

"He said 'education.' I said, 'Really, well if you decide to run for mayor, call me.' Twenty-four hours later, he called."

Yep, that sounds like our mayor. The Lundquists donated to his successful campaign and later to the school board members sponsored by Villaraigosa, who put her in touch with Tuck and Ray Cortines, the current superintendent, who was working for the mayor at the time.

They met on Feb. 9, 2007, Lundquist's birthday, and her present was to be swept up by their ambition and high hopes for better schools. In July, the partnership was launched. In September, the Lundquists made their pledge.

"It was incredible," Tuck said. "They're good human beings, but this was on a scale that was unheard of."

In total, the partnership has raised $65 million, with a scattering of donations in the $1-million range, but nothing approaching the Lundquist pledge.

I asked Richard how they arrived at $50 million. Did Melanie open the bidding at $100 million and he countered with $1 million?

He laughed and said no. The only indecision on their part was whether to give $25 million over five years or $50 million over 10 years, and that was quickly resolved.

But they didn't want to just sign checks and drop them in the mail. They wanted to be personally involved, and their division of labor went something like this:

Melanie would be the hands-on Lundquist, attending strategy sessions, visiting schools, getting to know principals, teachers and students.

"And Richard's job is to earn the $50 million," she said.

Melanie all but became a member of the partnership team, said Tuck, yet she hasn't been the least bit intrusive about how her gift is spent, other than to say she wants the partnership to be accountable for increasing student achievement. In the years to come, the Lundquist gift will pay for partnership staff, teacher development, campus improvements and more.

Melanie Lundquist said she got a quick education on campus conditions that were shocking and embarrassing. One school, in particular, was crumbling and filthy, the bathrooms in disrepair for years and some of them even locked. A team came in and steam-cleaned, fixed everything and painted. She said the principal, teachers and parents were so appreciative, some were in tears.

Lundquist said the goal is to break the schools into small and more manageable learning communities, to engage parents and merchants and future employers, and to have teachers more involved with each other and with administrators. Many of the teachers' critiques were well-founded, she said, and the partnership has to do a better job of clarifying their role in a transformation that she hopes will inspire other schools in the district and other districts in the country.

That's such a high bar, you wonder if Lundquist is setting herself up for a $50-million disappointment. Among other challenges -- such as disengaged students and parents, and inflexibility on the part of some districts and teacher unions -- there aren't a lot of people anywhere in the country who are willing to put up vast sums of money for the kinds of extras the partnership schools will enjoy.

"I'll bet you 25 cents that she's not disappointed," Tuck said.

We raised the ante to 50 cents, but the bet is off because like Tuck, I'd like for Lundquist to get some good returns on her stunningly generous investment and moral commitment.

"We've shortchanged kids, and we've shortchanged teachers," said Lundquist, but now there's a reform movement underway from Washington, D.C., to living rooms in the San Fernando Valley, where parents are rising up and demanding better results and more accountability. There's finally a chance, she said, to make a difference.

"Seventy-five percent of the inmates in California prisons are high school dropouts," Lundquist said. "That's crazy. People don't want to pay taxes, but we're paying for the prisons, and it's less expensive to educate people than to incarcerate them."

I asked Lundquist if she has friends who questioned the $50-million gift. Yes, she said.

"They say I'm wasting my time and money. They say it's socioeconomic."

When you know the kids and see their potential, Lundquist said, you understand both the challenge and the hope. She said she has been inspired by many students, and has begun referring to partnership youngsters as her scholars.

"It's the greatest thrill in the world to give your money away while you're still alive," Lundquist said.

At the 10 schools, 18,000 students stand to benefit from her investment in their future, but she figures she's got the better end of the deal.

"I'm the one who's lucky to be a part of this."

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

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