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The Best School Board Money Can Buy 

Reform is the reason, but there’s little rhyme to Riordan’s school slate

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Photo by Robert Yager

Two years ago, Richard Riordan evoked puzzlement and punditry when he vowed to become the "education mayor" of L.A. The mayor, after all, has no authority over the city school system. Bemusement only increased thereafter as Riordan, in pursuit of this goal, stumbled through a series of gaffes — alienating the school board, failing to influence top school administrators and bungling initial attempts to run a slate of school-board candidates. It was almost comical.

But then Riordan focused on what he does best: delivering the greenbacks.

And now, days before a school-board election that Riordan has shaped, Inspector Clouseau has begun to resemble Boss Tweed.

By Election Day on April 13, Riordan will have unleashed about $2 million on this year’s four school-board contests. Most of the money is from the pockets of the mayor himself and dozens of his closest rich friends and associates. In the process, he’s catapulted the $24,000-per-year, low-profile school-board posts into the political big time. And he has a realistic chance of dumping three well-entrenched incumbents, who’d be prohibitive favorites in a normal election year. The three Riordan-backed challengers are Mike Lansing, Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes. The mayor also supports incumbent David Tokofsky.

Incumbent Jeff Horton, stung by the mayor’s opposition, has characterized Riordan’s campaign as a "naked power grab," an effort to seat board members who will do his bidding. What this bidding would amount to isn’t clear — to Horton or anyone else. Riordan has never articulated a specific agenda for the school district, and by all appearances he doesn’t have one. Nor does his "slate" collectively offer a plan. For that matter, it’s not at all certain that Rior-dan’s favored candidates would necessarily do his bidding when push comes to shove.

As a big-city mayor, Riordan is not alone in stage-managing a dramatic reform drive. Across the nation, a number of mayors have been asked, or have taken the initiative, to wrest from school boards the job of reforming inner-city education. The idea took root in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley appoints both the chief executive officer and the school-board president — courtesy of an emergency reform plan approved by the Illinois legislature. The Ohio legislature later gave similar authority to the mayor of Cleveland, and late last month, Michigan lawmakers put Detroit’s mayor in charge of those schools. Closer to home, in Oakland, newly elected Mayor Jerry Brown has found a legislative sponsor for a bill that also would give him more control of the local schools.

"The mayor very much would like to be the Richard Daley of Los Angeles," noted one district insider who’s acquainted with Riordan. "He thinks he can do a better job of breaking through union and bureaucratic log jams."

Riordan’s own involvement with public schools predates his rise to mayor. He donated millions to the school district, and also fostered the school district’s LEARN reform project. With student performance still trailing most of the nation, and a divided school board that failed to perceive the situation as a crisis, Riordan decided instead to capitalize an election. His first plan — a mayoral task force that would endorse school-board candidates — fell apart before it was even fully organized. In the wake of this embarrassment, Riordan and his advisers decided to keep it simple: The mayor himself would endorse candidates and lead the fund-raising on their behalf.

Behind the scenes, Riordan’s team includes top political consultant Bill Carrick and local kingmaker Bill Wardlaw, who took part both in strategy meetings with Rior-dan and in the discussions about who would carry the Riordan banner. It was attorney Wardlaw who chaired Bill Clinton’s successful California campaign, and it was Wardlaw who masterminded Riordan’s own ascent to the mayor’s office. In other words, the same powerbroker who helped bring you a president and a mayor is now, at the mayor’s request, turning his attention to the school board.

This is Riordan’s version of civic leadership and good government; he’s found four people he likes — and he intends to put them on the school board, to shake up the status quo in a school system he regards as a catastrophe.

"At first, I thought it was a little strange that Richard Riordan kept talking about schools — that was not part of his job description," noted Deputy City Controller Timothy Lynch, a liberal Democrat not regarded as a Riordan enthusiast. "But then, the mayor in Chicago brought about a vast improvement in those schools. And look at what Jerry Brown is doing in Oakland.

"I have trouble thinking there’s anything nefarious about this. There’s no self-enrichment here. And this is a system that really needs major surgery. I’ve been sold on the idea that the mayor should have something to say about it. So should the City Council. So should the county Board of Supervisors. Everyone should be involved."

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