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Superintendent Dick

Mayor Richard J. Riordan is good at this: He’s on a bus, hamming it up with a group of elementary school students.

“What‘s the name of the best school in the world?” he prompts the kids, who are initially discombobulated by his directness. “I can’t hear you!” he goads them cheerfully. “What‘s 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: Who’s the best-looking kid? Who‘s 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, who’s 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 city‘s 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. It’s 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 can‘t 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 -- he’s 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 mayor’s 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 mayor’s chosen challengers. “That‘s not the campaign we’re going to run,” he said flatly. “We‘ll make a case for each of our candidates individually.”

Monday’s excursion was organized by the Mayor‘s 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, it’s 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 wasn‘t 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 Riordan’s 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. UTLA‘s 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 Riordan’s fund-raising triggered the most expensive school-board campaign in the nation‘s history.

A real face-off with the union, however, was inevitable. After all, the central original goal of the Riordan campaign initiative was to diminish union influence in board elections. As far back as mid-1997, Riordan and his allies met with top district administrators to float the idea of a corporate-backed committee organized to oppose teachers-union candidates, according to participants in these meetings.

Yet in 1999 direct opposition to the union never became a campaign issue, because Riordan had a better one to run with: the Belmont Learning Complex, the nation’s most expensive high school construction project, which sits half-finished atop a shallow oil field. That year, two of the targeted incumbents were vulnerable because they were adamant Belmont-project supporters. And Belmont was vigorously opposed by the lone incumbent Riordan endorsed. The fourth race featured an incumbent, George Kiriyama, who had generally opposed Belmont, but had little visibility on the subject. He got tarred with Belmont anyway and lost. Final score: Riordan 4, Opponents 0 -- assist to Belmont.

Though the future of Belmont remains unresolved, the project is no longer election fodder. That‘s because both of the Riordan-targeted incumbents were staunch Belmont-project opponents. Nor can Riordan run this time against the “failing” school district. His own endorsee, Genethia Hayes, has been school-board president for two years. And his endorsees occupy four of the seven seats. And, oops, test scores are up. So that brings things back to the teachers, especially considering the case of incumbent Valerie Fields.

Until a few weeks ago, Fields had sustained a delicate balancing act: Both the mayor and UTLA endorsed Fields. In 1997, before the mayor introduced big money, UTLA was the key -- along with Fields herself, who is well-known on the Westside, especially after a long stint serving as education adviser to former Mayor Tom Bradley.

When Riordan’s challengers joined the board in July 1999, Fields quickly found common cause with them. She was a more reliable fourth vote for them than David Tokofsky, the lone incumbent endorsed on Riordan‘s “reform” slate. It was Fields, in fact, who joined the “Riordan three” to oust Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. During this tumultuous period -- when Zacarias supporters led street protests -- it was Fields who tipped the scales, not only siding with the Riordan three, but helping them weather the ensuing storm.

“The mayor told me the whole four years of my term that he was my supporter,” said Fields, “besides telling me I was wonderful, and doing a great job, and calling me his hero, and telling me always to do what I thought was right.”

Riordan doesn’t deny this, noting that he explicitly told Fields he would endorse her as recently as three months ago: “Then I began to hear from people. I thought she was doing the bidding of the unions to the detriment of students.”

He finally asked Fields to meet him for a mid-January breakfast at the posh Omni Hotel. Before they got down to it, a radio reporter interviewed Riordan, who insisted on including Fields, while expressing his support for her. Then former USC quarterback Pat Haden stopped by. “The mayor told Haden he ought to support me,” recalled Fields. “Pat took a contribution envelope and the next day sent in a contribution.”

Soon the two were joined by Riordan ally Eli Broad, the billionaire businessman who was instrumental in recruiting current Superintendent Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor. Fields and Broad go way back, having served together on charitable boards when Fields would sit in as Mayor Bradley‘s representative. Broad had already contributed to Fields’ campaign.

Early in the conversation, Riordan pulled out hand-written notes for reference. “Somebody had given him a list of some cuts proposed by district Chief Financial Officer Joe Zeronian at a closed-session meeting of the school board,” said Fields. “I don‘t believe in revealing what goes on in these closed meetings, and legally we are not supposed to, not even to the mayor, but somebody did that and the mayor had notes.” According to Fields, Zeronian’s proposed cuts -- needed to pay for the teachers‘ contract -- were merely thrown out for discussion purposes. “We also talked about sums of money in different budgets that are not going to be expended this year. The mayor had all that, and he had a very specific figure of what he thought was the right amount to give teachers as a raise. He said that about 10 percent was okay, 11 percent was not.

”I told him 10 percent was history, that Superintendent Romer had already negotiated beyond that figure. I told him, ’You can‘t go backwards or you’ll cause a strike.‘

“He said, ’Oh, the teachers won‘t strike.’ He told me I should stick to his figure, which to me said, ‘You should undermine the superintendent.’

”That was pretty much it,“ continued Fields, adding that the meeting ended as cordially as it began. ”The mayor kissed me goodbye.“

And kissed her off.

A Riordan spokesman downplayed any link between the breakfast meeting -- or the size of the pay raise -- to the withdrawn endorsement. On the bus, however, Riordan made no attempt to sustain that polite fiction. He also added, ”I don‘t want people to do my bidding. If they do my bidding, they’re weak board members. I want strong board members.“

The trick is, apparently, to be strong and independent, but never have the misfortune to disagree with the mayor on something he cares strongly about. Of course, such an instance had never previously crystallized in the public domain. Riordan has carefully refrained from openly taking sides on matters before the board -- until now. Said Riordan: ”I was actually hesitant to do it, but I felt I had to back Genethia Hayes, Caprice Young and Mike Lansing“ -- the three Riordan endorsees who form the minority bloc opposing the teachers‘ contract.

For her part, Caprice Young says the teachers’ contract is indicative of a larger failing in the early Romer administration. Romer, she said, is too busy putting out fires -- and she conceded there are many -- to devise long-term plans for managing the district‘s money. Young said she’s unwilling to vote for a raise of this magnitude without seeing how it affects other critical needs, such as expanding reading programs: ”I don‘t have a problem with the level of increase if the superintendent can put it in the context of his overall goals and priorities, so we can know what we’re trading off.“

This logic is maddening to teachers who follow board politics. A similar level of budgetary restraint -- or long-term planning -- was not in evidence when the board voted last year to divide the district into 11 administrative regions. That plan was sold as a move to improve service while cutting costs. The verdict remains out on the service part, but first-year administrative costs are up, not down. The budget just for opening new administrative offices is $18 million, according to district staff. Moreover, there was no outcry from the Mayor‘s Office or the three board critics of the contract when senior administrative salaries climbed at a higher rate than that now proposed for teachers.

In fact, a vocal contingent of teachers oppose the negotiated contract. It angers them that they had to bargain for a stipulated right to a clean classroom or teaching supplies, which is indeed part of the contract’s ”Classroom Bill of Rights.“ Shouldn‘t the district be providing such things already? Isn’t that in the best interests of the children as well as teachers? They are especially unhappy over the weakening of the seniority system, which allowed teachers to choose classroom assignments based on who‘d taught in the district the longest. Teachers achieved this privilege in exchange for absorbing a 10 percent pay cut during the cash-strapped 1992-1993 school year, money that has never been fully restored.

The revised procedure would allow principals to assign all nonpermanent teachers -- about 40 percent of the work force -- so that experienced, fully credentialed teachers can be evenly distributed across grades and across tracks. The hope is that all students would then have equal access to experienced teachers -- not just those students on scheduling tracks favored by senior teachers. Critical teachers counter that this scheduling inequity doesn’t exist at many schools, and that the seniority take-away does nothing to address a greater problem -- the paucity of credentialed teachers at ”undesirable“ schools. Nor does it remedy the absolute shortage of qualified math and science teachers at higher grade levels.

What could help, said board member Fields, is the pay increase, which would raise school-district salaries to approximately the county average. ”We were spending all this money to train teachers, then when they got qualified, they would take a job at some other school district where they could make more money.“

Nonetheless, union reps at two area meetings last week actually voted down the deal in a non-binding tally. Union president Day Higuchi and his top lieutenants are lobbying teachers hard to approve the contract. In one recorded phone message, Higuchi maintained that the only alternative is an unwanted strike. In an interview, he voiced concern that a post-election school board could look more Riordanesque than ever, and could push to take back what‘s already been negotiated. Teachers voted this week, with vote counting scheduled to begin Thursday.

Whether the district can afford the deal without painful budget cuts is the fare of dueling analyses. The money is there, no question, said board member Tokofksy, a onetime Riordan endorsee, who can look forward to the mayor’s displeasure during his 2003 campaign. Four of the seven board members told the Weekly that Superintendent Romer did just as he was told, that is, he traded money for administrative control. They added that they would resist any cuts that would hurt instructional programs.

”Romer moved us farther in one year than anyone else ever has,“ said board member Victoria Castro, a former principal. ”The state Legislature gave us money to cover a 10 percent raise with the expectation that most school districts would use the money for that purpose, and they have. For another 1.5 percent, Romer made progress on the rest of the agenda, which has not moved in 10 years.

“I went through two strikes as a principal. I wasn‘t there for a strike this time. It’s difficult on a teaching staff and the students. In the last year, my constituents have been affected by the janitors‘ strike and the MTA strike, so don’t put these kids through a teachers‘ strike when you know there’s ample money for a pay raise. If teachers don‘t push for this money now, when do they?”

Unlike Korenstein and Fields, Castro chose to leave the board rather than run for re-election this year. She’s almost certain to be replaced by Jose Huizar, a 32-year-old land-use attorney endorsed by both Riordan and much of the Latino political establishment. Could Huizar be the key to Riordan‘s getting what he wants? And what exactly does Riordan want -- besides better schools?

Valerie Fields, still stung by the mayor’s abandonment, puts it bluntly: “He would like Romer to quit, and then he could move in as superintendent.”

Maybe. Yet becoming superintendent is a bit like being the genie of the lamp. You have all that power, but must bend it to the wishes of your master -- in this case, the Board of Education. If Riordan can somehow maintain his influence after leaving office, he‘s already just where he probably prefers to be.

But even if Superintendent Riordan is an unlikely scenario, it’s one heck of a campaign theme.

Researcher Dave Perera contributed to this story.