By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
It was the day after Election Day — less than 24 hours after Mayor Richard Riordan and his wealthy allies had masterminded the most expensive school-board campaign in history — and a new power equation was already asserting itself. School-board member David Tokofsky was approached in his office by a five-member delegation of the self-appointed Committee on Effective School Governance.
This is the same "Citizens Committee," closely aligned with the mayor, that adopted a "reform" agenda this year with much fanfare. Members of this committee helped Riordan raise more than $2 million for the school-board races. And Riordan’s picks won every contest.
Tokofsky was the only incumbent to win the mayor’s endorsement, and now the delegation wanted to know: What did Tokofsky intend to do? And, more important, where exactly did he stand on the committee’s agenda?
In the three weeks since the election, other delegations from the committee held similar meetings with board members Julie Korenstein, Victoria Castro and Valerie Fields. And though all the visits have been cordial, the committee tag teams have been insistent: They want the school board to operate more like a corporate board of directors. They want fewer and shorter school-board meetings, and they want board members to get out of the superintendent’s way — but then be prepared to fire him if he can’t deliver. School-board members insist they don’t feel pressured, but then again, they have cause to be diplomatic. The citizens committee is "mostly in a telling mode, not a listening mode," noted outgoing board member Jeff Horton, who received no visitation.
The jockeying of Riordan and friends was more than enough to roust the mayor’s critics, as well as schools Superintendant Ruben Zacarias’ core constituents, who rallied around him in much the same way when Zacarias competed to become superintendent in 1997. It did not escape their attention that one of the losing finalists, former banker Bill Siart, took part in the Citizens Committee’s visitations.
"I am informed that there is an active, behind-the-scenes effort by a number of key private-sector leaders to replace the superintendent with a corporate-czar model of control at the district," warned state Senator Tom Hayden (D–Los Angeles) in a statement this week. "They may move directly to dump the superintendent, or more likely, phase the effort between now and January."
In an interview, Mayor Riordan dismissed the remarks of Hayden, his onetime rival for mayor of Los Angeles, as "baloney." "This is just pure Tom Hayden, finding a conspiracy anywhere," said Riordan. "He makes statements with nothing to back them up."
Riordan insists he has nothing to do with committee visits, but, according to well-placed sources, he too is pressing an agenda on the new school board, making personal phone appeals to get newly elected member Genethia Hayes named as board president. The mayor declined to discuss his telephone lobbying.
This week, however, it was other powerful interests that held sway in a tempest over the future of schools Superintendent Zacarias. On Tuesday, a majority on the lame-duck school board voted to extend the contract of Zacarias by one year, through June 2001. The vote rode on the crest of a hastily but well-organized "Save Zacarias" effort led by state Senator Richard Polanco (D–Los Angeles) and an array of Latino activists. They portrayed Zacarias as a target of the mayor’s purge, and some characterized any opposition as racism.
Zacarias stood mutely on the sidelines until the extension was approved, then vowed to step aside and waive the last year of his $188,000 annual pay if the new board is dissatisfied by the end of the year.
Zacarias’ tour de force was tarnished, however, by allegations of quid pro quos to outgoing board members George Kiriyama and Jeff Horton. The L.A. Timeslast week suggested that Kiriyama may have supported Zacarias’ extension in exchange for a district job, a possibility that Zacarias addressed directly at Tuesday’s meeting. "You are a decent and honorable man," he said to Kiriyama. "I have to say publicly that I extended the same invitation to Mr. Kiriyama that I did individually to about 400 retireees at our district retirement reception about a week ago. We have shortages. I said to them, ‘We need your skills and your expertise.’"
Kiriyama, who left his principal job four years ago to serve on the school board, makes no secret of his intent. "I would come back to work full-time," he said cheerfully in an interview. "Why not? My wife is working full-time, and I’m sitting at home doing nothing? Besides, I could use the money."
Departing board member Horton, who became the swing vote for Zacarias, landed a post last week as board member for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Horton was appointed by county Supervisor Gloria Molina, a supporter of Zacarias. Molina’s spokesman said the decision to select Horton was made weeks ago, well before Molina was even aware of the brewing controversy over Zacarias’ extension. Horton’s new position will enable him to serve his term as president of the California School Boards Association, a position to which he’s long aspired.