April 10 is the ultimate day at the track for the nation's second-largest school district. Never before has so much ridden on the backs of campaign horses as in the current race for positions on Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) Board of Education.
Vying for two of three seats in this term's school board elections are two incumbents whose very experience has put them under fire. If re-elected, Julie Korenstein, representing District 6, which covers major portions of the San Fernando Valley, will be the longest-sitting member of the current school board. Korenstein, who began her career as a teacher's assistant in LAUSD, was first elected to the school board in 1987 and served as president in 1997. The other incumbent, Valerie Fields, represents District 4, which includes West Los Angeles and most of the western San Fernando Valley. Fields, a former LAUSD teacher, joined the board in 1997.
Both Korenstein and Fields face challenges from several interesting opponents who, with one exception, have no experience working in education or with LAUSD. That would suggest slim odds for the challengers save for the fact that they have found backing from a powerful source: the mayor of Los Angeles.
As in any important race, the stakes are high, but this particular election looks to influence not just the careers of a few local officials but the entire direction of the public education in a district serving an enrollment of more than 722,000 children in grades K-12 and employing more than 75,000 people. In recent years, LAUSD has been taken to task for being bloated with bureaucrats and understaffed by qualified teachers, a morass of red tape and a facilities disaster waiting to happen.
It also possesses some of the top students and teachers in California and perhaps the nation, as exemplified by schools like El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, which recently won the state's Academic Decathlon for the fifth time in 10 years. However, incumbent candidates tend to get all the blame and none of the glory for the district's performance.
Of all the candidates, Fields has the longest record of public service. She served on Mayor Tom Bradley's executive staff throughout his five terms as mayor, both as his education adviser and as his liaison to the cultural community, and she developed a Blue Ribbon Committee on Arts Education that has been widely acclaimed for bringing art education back into the schools.
Fields, 74, also serves on the boards of the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Committee and the African American/Jewish Leadership Connection. She is endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
Fields says she is proud of the work she has done on behalf of the children, teachers, administrators and parents of LAUSD.
"I am the only candidate who has 20 years experience with making public policy," she said. "I hit the ground running and haven't stopped."
Fields faces three opponents: Matthew Rodman, 32, a commercial real estate developer; Marlene Canter, 52, a former educator who recently sold her teacher training company to Sylvan Learning Centers; and Rick Selan, 51, a special-education advocate from Venice.
Selan, who has managed to raise $800 for his campaign, has been largely ignored by the media.
Canter picked up the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, and according to the Daily News she intends to spend $330,000 of her own money, more than any other candidate, making this one of the most expensive races for school board in Los Angeles history.
Rodman, a newcomer to politics, won strong backing from Riordan after Fields opposed the mayor in February and voted in favor of a 15.3 percent, one-year wage-and-benefit increase for teachers. Rodman uses Fields' vote on the teachers' contract as an example of why it is time for new blood on the board.
"[Fields] is part of the entrenched bureaucracy of the district," Rodman said. "Her lack of business sense resulted in her voting for a teacher's contract which no one had identified sources from which it would be paid. The superintendent now has to cut $135 million in school programs in order to pay for it. That doesn't even make basic sense, much less business sense."
Talk to Rodman for just a few minutes and you will hear the word "business" a lot. He believes in using a corporate, "local-control" approach to dealing with major issues, such as facilities and cutting costs.
"I want every school to run like a well-run small business, with the principal as CEO and a governing board made up of teachers, parents and community members," he said. "Principals should have control of their budget. They know when they need books, they know when they have a leak in the roof, and they can get things done for significantly less money than the district will."
Ideas like these sound appealing, but they may not be enough to overcome Rodman's negatives, the most glaring being lack of experience in education. He holds a bachelor's degree in public administration from the University of Southern California and attended law school but dropped out to take over his family's real estate business.
Rodman is not yet a parent, although he says he and his wife, Rene, plan to send their children to public school if the schools improve. Rodman does have some experience working with young people as a volunteer adviser for the police department's Explorer Scouts. His main claims to fame are as president of the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission and former head of the Brentwood Homeowners Association.
While Fields points to her impressive pedigree both in and outside of the system and Rodman holds up his real estate experience, Canter has spent her campaign attempting to straddle the middle ground as both an educator and a businesswoman. She touts her independence from both unions and politicians as her strong point, along with her ability to tell it like it is.
"I think the most serious challenge is how we are going to graduate children who know how to read and write when we have a board that is not making strong enough decisions to provide oversight for the district," Canter said. "What you also have is the power from within. The teachers union is trying to get across an agenda that's not about what is in the best interest of the children. I believe unless you are able to run clearly independent of vested interests, you cannot make good decisions."
Canter is not immune to the exaggeration inherent in most campaigns. For example, on her Web site she talks about her experience in special education, although according to news sources, she last taught in a school setting in the early 1970s. The Web site also fails to mention that both her children, although eligible to attend schools in LAUSD, instead attended private schools.
But other factors make Canter worth a look. She started her own company, Canter & Associates, Inc., which offered professional development programs for educators and resource books for both parents and teachers. She also co-authored a book about getting parents more involved in the classroom and is active in several local charities, including serving on the boards of the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation and The Guardians, a fundraising organization supporting the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda.
Moving on to race No. 2, we find long-shot candidate Tom Riley, the challenger for the seat now held by Korenstein. How he got to this point is baffling. Riley is backed by Riordan but, like Rodman, is not a parent and has no education experience. The Los Angeles Times endorsed him, but a read-through of the newspaper's decision makes it clear he got the nod less for his own merits -- none were mentioned -- than for the simple fact that he is not Korenstein.
Finally, Riley claims to be a business owner but refuses to discuss the nature of his business or what type of organizing he has done with labor groups. (A report in the March 23 edition of the Daily News states that Riley, a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, is the co-founder of a company in Reseda that manufactures proprietary software and hardware for the bingo industry and also supplies electronic equipment for Los Angeles County Charities.)
Despite his sketchy qualifications, Riley-the-outsider has succeeded in attracting attention.
"I can't wait until I have children to do something," he said. "Right now all of our neighbors send their kids to private schools. Every year that [a family] sends out their property tax check and then has to send their child to a private school, they are being robbed. We need better choices."
Riley, 35, blasts the current school board for failing to make its people accountable, pointing as examples to the Belmont situation and the recent discovery of a building rented by the district but never used.
"We are completely out of room for kids in classrooms," he said. "We have to build 85 new schools, and even then they're going to have year-round schedules, which is possibly the worst environment for teaching kids. We've created conditions for kids to learn in that you or I would never tolerate in the workplace," he declared. "This is a real lack of leadership and judgment on the part of the board, and we're paying the price."
Korenstein calls such characterizations unfair.
"What [Riley] doesn't seem to understand is there is no money dedicated by the state for facilities," Korenstein said. "Lottery money is prohibited, so the only money we can use is through bond measures the voters decide on, and for years they voted 'no.' Yet since 1983 we have built 25 schools, including two [magnet] high schools."
Korenstein said she feared that without experienced leadership, the district will lose valuable time.
"We have a group of novices on the board right now, and [if the incumbents lose,] we will have a group of novices with even less information, and there is no time for a learning curve. Too many decisions have to be made right now and cannot wait."
Korenstein, 57, who is endorsed by UTLA and a long list of Democrats headed by Gov. Gray Davis, agreed that this election will have profound repercussions for the future of education throughout Los Angeles.
"My concern is that the mayor is involved and literally buying seats [on the school board]. I consider it a hostile takeover," she said. "I am also concerned about the privatization of public education. Children cannot be treated as a commodity or something to manufacture; each is a unique human being with a multitude of variables. Teachers cannot be treated like workers on an assembly line."
In the end, it is tough to predict the outcome of these two races. Has the toss-the-bums-out approach, so prevalent in the mid-1990s, waned? Or will the population's dissatisfaction with the current state of the LAUSD lead to a loss for the incumbents no matter what their qualifications?
Despite the dark clouds hanging over the current board members, it is clear from talking to teachers that many still hope for a win for Fields and Korenstein. Some educators say their backgrounds are more appropriate for the job; others are fearful that the newcomers, with their heavy business backgrounds, will lead the district down the road to disaster.
"I'm the first to admit that LAUSD has problems, but turning to the business model is not the solution," said Pamela Gibberman, a UTLA activist who has taught music classes in LAUSD for 25 years. "We are not a factory; we do not turn out widgets. Every child needs to be taught in his or her own way, and we as professionals have to have the freedom to meet the needs of every individual we are charged with educating."
Gibberman credits Fields and Korenstein with restoring arts education to the district and with providing support for teachers.
"If voters are looking to maintain the integrity of the Board of Education of LAUSD, they need to consider well the record of the individuals running," she said. "I believe the record of accomplishment of the two ladies in question is far more appropriate and outstanding in meeting the needs of the children of Los Angeles than any of their opponents."
So there you have it. Only one thing remains certain in this race: the winners certainly havetheir work cut out for them.
Jockeys, get ready. The finish line awaits.