Virtues of Giving 

School reform is just one reason to donate to the mayor’s Coalition for Kids

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001

If media and baseball mogul Rupert Murdoch really wants to help local kids, the school district has just the thing:

Donate a couple of distant, underused Dodger Stadium parking lots for a high school. It would cost him less out-of-pocket cash than your average disgruntled left fielder. Folks might even name the school after Murdoch.

Heck, forget the donation and let the school district pay for the lots and perhaps even a parking garage as a tradeoff. Murdoch, however, had something else in mind. On January 11, 2000, he donated $50,000 to the Coalition for Kids.

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The Coalition for Kids is the campaign committee established by Mayor Richard Riordan to throw out school-board members he doesn’t like -- board members whom he considers too thick, too distracted or too compromised to do what‘s best for the children of L.A.

This role of political terminator comes after two earlier Riordan incarnations: first as school philanthropist, through the Riordan Foundation; then as the friendly pied piper of school improvement, through the corporate-backed LEARN reforms. It was Riordan’s impatience with the pace of progress that led to the Coalition for Kids. He‘s out to terminate the political careers of two board members in the April city elections, after having helped retire three other incumbents in 1999, which was the coalition’s first election test.

Critics acknowledge that Riordan cares for the children of Los Angeles Unified, but what are the myriad motivations of his financial foot soldiers -- including Murdoch, the Playa Capital Corp. and Riordan buddy Bert Boeckmann -- all of them contributors to the coalition? Are there issues that could have motivated them to donate beyond a commendable striving for the public good?

In a word: yes.

For some contributors, such as Ed Roski Jr.‘s Majestic Realty -- one of the city’s major developers -- the amounts donated to the Coalition for Kids pale in comparison to what‘s been at stake in city business before the mayor. Majestic, which donated $15,000 to the coalition in 1999, had the mayor’s support for city subsidies to help pay for Staples Center (co-owned by Roski). Roski also has the backing of the Mayor‘s Office for further development -- and further subsidies -- in the blocks surrounding Staples, a development zone that could surpass $1 billion in value. Majestic also had the mayor’s help in obtaining $12 million in federal assistance for an $80 million warehouse complex that would fill a tract near Chinatown and the L.A. River. Community activists want to reserve that land for open space, affordable housing and, yes, possibly a school.

“I‘ve always thought that Riordan did all of this with the best of motives,” noted one attorney, who requested anonymity because of his work for the school district. As for the donors, “In an environment where everyone knows the school district is land-hungry, where everybody is aware of the district’s aggressiveness in seeking land, I could see how developers and other contributors to the coalition might want to protect themselves.”

In a handful of cases, the financial interests of coalition supporters conflict directly with those of a school district seeking school sites. Boeckmann, for example, snapped up a property the school district was openly pursuing. And Playa Capital -- the builder of Playa Vista -- would rather market housing and retail footage than set aside more prime land for classroom space.

Mayor Riordan, brandishing his mantle as the “Education Mayor,” has insisted that school sites take priority over economic development, a sort of Riordan Doctrine. Thus, those who want properties for other purposes must yield to public necessity. But the reality is more intermittent than the rhetoric.

Because Riordan is leaving office, some recent contributions may have more to do with mayoral services rendered than hoped for. Still, for a fervent capitalist, the advantages -- civic and otherwise -- of donating to the Coalition for Kids can be numerous. For one, you can donate at once to every school-board candidate whom the mayor is supporting. And you never need mull over which candidate is actually most fit for the job. The mayor takes care of that for you. And unlike contests for the mayor and City Council, there are no donation limits in school-board races. Giving to the coalition has been mayoral lobbying in another form. And if you really want to impress Mayor Riordan with the extent of your commitment to school reform, nothing will restrain you except your bank balance and your generosity.

It showed in the 1999 school-board races, the most expensive school-board campaigns in the nation‘s history. And this year’s contests are headed in the same direction. Here‘s a more detailed look at the extended interests of some players who’ve helped make them that way.

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