Mayor Richard J. Riordan is good at this: Hes on a bus, hamming it up with a group of elementary school students.
Whats the name of the best school in the world? he prompts the kids, who are initially discombobulated by his directness. I cant hear you! he goads them cheerfully. Whats the name of the best school in the world?
Norwood Elementary! they shout, catching on. The mayor then turns even more playful with the group of 20, which is riding to school on a fancy chartered bus: Whos the best-looking kid? Whos the smartest kid? And lastly: Who gives their teacher the most trouble?
On that point, if the mayor had been talking to teachers instead of students, many hands would have pointed to the mayor himself, whos become Class Troublemaker as far as the teachers union is concerned.
Throughout his second term as mayor, Riordan has helped, needled, meddled -- you name it -- when it comes to the citys school district, over which he has no direct authority. His most notable move has been raising record sums of money to elect his endorsed candidates to the school board -- a feat he intends to repeat in April.
In the last month, however, Mayor Riordan has, for the first time, taken a public position on an issue directly before the school board: the proposed contract settlement that would raise teacher salaries about 11.5 percent. Riordan is dead set against it. Its too expensive: The teachers are underpaid even with this raise, but you have to have a sense of priorities, he told reporters on the bus. A salary increase cant come at the expense of other essentials. The priorities are books, computers, arts education and after-school programs.
Riordan has repeated that mantra like a campaign theme -- hes had to, given the number of reporters questions on it. Problem is, this message is remarkably useful for the incumbent school-board members he is currently trying to throw out of office. With just a dash of political spin, the mayors adversaries can rephrase the argument: The superintendent of schools favors the teachers contract, they point out. So does a majority of school-board members; so do the leaders of the teachers union. Why does the mayor think he knows better than they? Why is Mayor Riordan against teachers? For that matter, exactly who does Mayor Riordan think he is? The boss of the school district?
This delineation of the coming school-board race -- the Mayor vs. the Teachers -- is not one favored by campaign consultant Bill Carrick, a key adviser for the mayors chosen challengers. Thats not the campaign were going to run, he said flatly. Well make a case for each of our candidates individually.
Mondays excursion was organized by the Mayors Office in a snappy, natural-gas-fueled bus provided by the MTA. The Education Express was not about politics, insisted Deputy Mayor Benjamin B. Austin, but about marking both improvements and remaining challenges in the city schools, and about giving the mayor some credit for the good stuff. In other words, its legacy time for a mayor about to leave office. Along the way, Riordan sang the praises of corporations that have adopted schools, while pleading for more private-sector largess. The bus stops included an education-supporting corporation and schools that Riordan judged exemplary for one reason or another.
Still, if this wasnt a campaign kickoff, it was an impressive simulation. First, there was the absence of the incumbent board members whom Riordan opposes. Second, there were the appearances of Riordans endorsees: Tom Riley, a 35-year-old politically active vendor of bingo equipment; and Matthew Rodman, a 32-year-old real estate developer and mayoral appointee on the Westside planning commission. Neither challenger rode the bus, but both showed up at a stop -- Riley at the Kindergarten Learning Academy in Van Nuys and Rodman at Marlton Charter School in Baldwin Hills.
Riley is running against San Fernando Valley representative Julie Korenstein, the longest-serving board member, who has held office since 1987. Rodman is challenging Valerie Fields, who seeks a second four-year term in a district that includes much of the Westside and a portion of the San Fernando Valley. In both races, Riordan will go head to head against United Teachers Los Angeles, the L.A. teachers union, which has endorsed both incumbents. UTLAs positioning only reinforces the notion of Mayor vs. Teachers, which, if he must, the mayor would prefer to characterize as Mayor vs. Teachers Union.
For years, the teachers union has been the major money and organizing engine in school-board elections, though it has not always prevailed. After the 1997 election, which was before Riordan entered the fray, four of the seven board members had won office without teachers-union support. Two years later, in 1999, the mayor went head to head against the union in only one of four contests, a surprisingly comfortable win for Riordan-backed challenger Mike Lansing. The union sat out one race. The two others were squeakers. In these, Riordan and UTLA endorsed the same candidate, and every bit of support from both titans was required -- even as Riordans fund-raising triggered the most expensive school-board campaign in the nations history.