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. Times last 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.

In the end, only Valerie Fields voted against the extension, while Tokofsky abstained. For ousted board member Barbara Boudreaux, the decision was clearly a parting shot at Riordan et al. “The takeover of public education is here right now,” said Boudreaux, adding that she was “forced out by millionaires who use children to make a case for their greed, power and control.” Boudreaux also took aim at mayoral ally Mike Roos, who heads LEARN, a private but school-district supported school-reform effort. She called Roos “the biggest Trojan horse ever put on this district. LEARN has delivered nothing but a lot of money into the pockets of people.” Roos could not be reached for comment.

Although the Citizens Committee includes minorities and women, it’s anchored for the most part by wealthy Anglo men, current and former business executives. Many have a long history of charitable involvement with L.A. Unified; others are recent recruits. The committee made no collective election endorsements, but most of its individual members aligned with the mayor.

And the committee wasted no time following up on the election. The delegation to Tokofsky included former school-board member Mark Slavkin, retired Getty Trust president Harold Williams, retired Lockheed CEO Roy Anderson and former state Assembly leader Roos, the head of LEARN. At Tokofsky’s invitation, the meeting also included attorney Howard Miller, a family friend who served on the school board in 1979.

Some at the meeting recall that Roos, in particular, pushed Tokofsky to commit himself to back away from hands-on management. “Wouldn’t the board be happy to work fewer hours for the same money?” he reportedly told Tokofsky. One person at another gathering called it a good cop, bad cop routine, with Roos playing the heavy — although all for the cause, as it were.

“There was no anti-Zacarias agenda at the meeting,” noted attorney Miller, who added that the committee had vigorously pushed for its vision of reform. “They did use phrases like ‘You adopt the plan and hold people responsible for meeting the plan.’” Board members Korenstein, Fields and Castro gave similar accounts. In Tokofsky’s case, he was asked what he would do if he were school-board president — Tokofsky is, after all, the only incumbent on the mayor’s slate, a logical choice to become president.

Tokofsky’s first impulse was to be clever. “I said I would stop the bombing in Yugoslavia,” he recalled. Then he got serious and rattled off ideas for improving student achievement. It’s hard to gauge the impression he made, but Mayor Riordan, for one, appears to be leaning in another direction. In fact, two board members report that Riordan is lobbying for the newly elected Hayes.

Hayes would be the first board newcomer to become president since Roberta Weintraub in 1979, when Weintraub’s anti-busing slate swept the board. District records going back to the 1930s record no other instance.

Riordan predicted the entire furor over Zacarias’ extension would be forgotten in a week: “It’s something not even worth me discussing. It’s not important whether the contract is extended. Getting in a fight over this takes everybody’s eye off the ball. What’s important is having strong standards and empowering the superintendent, and then holding him accountable.”

Sound familiar?

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