A startling plaudit appeared in last week’s letters section from none other than school-board member David Tokofsky. Tokofsky alleged, “I suspect that the constituents of the 14th [City Council District] are in for a dramatic loss of services and representation if Councilman Alatorre is not there in 1999.”
Actually, the rest of us 14th District residents are still waiting for our “services and representation” to regain the luster they enjoyed under Alatorre predecessor Art Snyder. Almost any competent successor, lacking Alatorre’s energy-draining webworks of political, social and fiscal obligations, should find more time to tend to the district than the harried (and presently convalescing) incumbent does now.
A terrific example of just how enmeshed Alatorre’s personal dilemmas and public duties have become surfaced just last week. Unable to attend the news conference that followed a major environmental-law settlement involving the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments complex in Boyle Heights, the councilman issued a congratulatory press release that read, in part, “It’s been a frustrating process because until this lawsuit was adjudicated, my only option to try to improve conditions on this property was to seek a new owner.”
Hold on to that “new owner” bit. Wyvernwood is an aging, private, 1,179-apartment complex just west of the Estrada Courts public-housing facility on East Olympic Boulevard. Under last week’s judgment in a suit by City Attorney Jim Hahn, the owner of record, Samuel Mevorach, must create a million-dollar trust fund to screen the blood of thousands of resident children for lead poisoning. Another $200,000 was dedicated to treatment of children known to be contaminated. Mevorach must also somehow either remove or encapsulate the lead residues remaining on the property.
The lead hazard was maximized when Mevorach’s employees scraped away much of the complex’s old lead-based paint. They neither warned tenants of the dangers nor “clean[ed] up paint chips or dust before they left,” Hahn noted. Four cases of child lead poisoning were reported in apartments whose exteriors “showed lead levels up to 94 times the legal limit.”
Mevorach’s name isn’t mentioned in the councilman’s press release. But the Weekly reported in December 1996 that Alatorre had intervened to forestall a toxic-abatement action at Wyvernwood initiated by the District Attorney’s Office. And in December 1997, the Times connected Mevorach with Alatorre’s efforts to finance a new Eagle Rock home.
Alatorre’s reported problem was that he had, for some intriguing but undisclosed reason, earlier borrowed heavily to pay $280,000 — at least double and maybe triple the area market price — for a two-bedroom Eastside condominium. Already saddled with his condo albatross, he found it hard to convince bankers that he qualified for another home loan. So he desperately needed a tenant who’d pay enough rent to offset his condo’s high mortgage payments.
But what are friends for? Alatorre’s first tenant was one Erica Roberg, whom the Times identified as “the personal trainer of Mevorach’s longtime girlfriend.” She reportedly paid $1,400 monthly for the privilege of residing in Alatorre’s former digs. Perhaps Roberg willingly paid extra for the prestige of renting a famous councilman’s quarters. Three-bedroom houses near Monterey Hills rent for around $800 — at least that’s what I pay for mine.
Later, “real estate appraiser” William Chu, a former Mevorach employee, assumed title to the property by putting $10,000 down and shouldering Alatorre’s remaining debt.
Now back to Wyvernwood’s “new owner.” Who is, prospectively, none other than our old friend, the city of Los Angeles. Last year, Alatorre shepherded a deal whereby the city would buy Wyvernwood from Mevorach for $91 million — a figure housing officials thought high. The Times said the sale eventually ran afoul of that lead-pollution problem.
But with the pollution solution now in sight, Alatorre may yet see to it that Mevorach is repaid for his personal kindnesses. (Officials at Alatorre’s office declined to comment Tuesday on whether their boss would continue to push this deal.) As the councilman reportedly said of the Wyvernwood deal last year, “The quicker we can move [to buy], the better off the city will be.” As will the 14th District councilman lauded by David Tokofsky.
Board Bans Boards
Even before state Senator Tom Hayden proposed breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District, this columnist was a knee-jerk defender of that sprawling educational bureaucracy.
It wasn’t just for love of officialdom. It seemed to me — it still does — that a well-run, responsive, central authority is the best way to deliver a decent education for the huge and complex L.A. student body. The alternative — small districts — is likely to result in more Compton school districts than Beverly Hills USD’s.
Unfortunately, it’s every day less evident that the words “well-run” and “responsive” apply to our LAUSD. As to “well-run,” we have Howard Blume’s disclosures in these pages of just how appallingly bad district management has been on the incomplete Belmont Learning Complex project — already the state’s costliest monument to school bureaucracy’s incapacity to spend taxpayer dollars intelligently.
As for “responsive,” look what happened last week to the district’s seven volunteer education commissions. These panels, four of which represented ethnic minorities and three of which represented nonethnic groupings (gays, females, disabled), were abruptly canceled as of June 30 by the board’s unanimous vote. If there was a contention that they had all served their purpose and it was time to move on, John Fernandez, director of the 30-year-old Mexican-American Commission, disagreed: “Low academic achievement, high dropout rates and low SAT scores continue to plague our students,” he said.
One thing should be conceded. These panels were often a pain in the ass to the board and infrequently supported the whole district’s interests. Fernandez’s commission, for instance, lobbied for the installation of Ruben Zacarias as superintendent, thus forcing out a potentially superior candidate of another background. The Black Education Commission touted Ebonics language study. On the other hand, the boards have regularly broadened the curriculum and helped ethnic groups better understand one another — presenting programs at most district schools. They’ve also accomplished some quiet revolutions. The Special Education Commission, for instance, has been working to bring special-needs pupils into the student mainstream.
Anyway, democracy is never pretty, and the panels, with a total of nearly 200 volunteer members, were the closest thing the LAUSD had to an everyday popular franchise. In speaking up for black, Latino, Asian-Pacific, Native American, gay, special-ed and female students, they formed an ad hoc legislature representing 95 percent of the district’s student body. Throw in a Straight Caucasian Male Commission and you’d cover nearly everyone.
The board is now replacing these lively panels with a so-called Human Relations Commission. The board members are pretending that this is a step toward “unification.”
But, as they carefully avoid saying, there’s a major shift here in both practice and purpose. Instead of advocating for specific groups within the student population or informing the entire student body about the minorities within, this commission (whose exact size and composition have not yet been determined) was designed last year to supplement — not replace — the minority commissions by monitoring intergroup disputes and complaints. Instead of being proactive, it’ll be reactive.
The board’s excuse for improvising this replacement of the original commissions is the alleged threat from Proposition 209. But no 209-based challenge is imminent. At its worst, such a challenge would only apply to four of the seven panels. Meanwhile, the board’s craven acquiescence to a nonexistent right-wing threat can only spur anti-affirmative-action forces to find out what multicultural cargo the pusillanimous LAUSD might toss overboard if really challenged.
But perhaps the board voted to silence the in-house critical voices merely to ease its weekly routine. Whatever the reasoning, the action was tragic and, ultimately, self-destructive. The nationwide trend in all public administration is toward more local representation, not less. Large school bureaucracies elsewhere have adapted to the conflicting demands of diverse populations by spreading the advisory franchise, the way New York’s 25-year-old local boards do.
Similarly, most city-charter advocates agree there’s a need for more local government representation. Even Mayor Dick Riordan now pushes neighborhood government councils. In supporting the principle of central school authority, one had hoped the LAUSD would perceive the trend and become more responsive, less bureaucratic — if only to assure its own survival.
Instead of building on the representative concept contained, however imperfectly, in the various special commissions, the LAUSD board, without the faintest vestige of an in-house evaluative process (such as the one that county government uses to rate its own volunteer commissions), wiped out its most representative agencies. That’s not just arrogance; that’s spitting in the face of history. You can only ask yourself: How long can such an institution survive? And indeed, why should it?