UPDATE: Carter Paysinger, vying to become the first black person elected to office in Beverly Hills' 102-year history, failed to win a school board seat by fewer than 100 votes. But two other outsiders won to beat a longtime board incumbent. See update below.
In his 2014 memoir, Carter Paysinger describes his 1972 trip at age 14 to Beverly Hills High School as "the most important day of my life."
"Where I lived, in South Central Los Angeles, we had low-slung houses and chain-link fences and lots of giant billboards," he writes in Where a Man Stands. "But as we drove down Santa Monica, those gave way to spacious homes, majestic lawns and men with rakes and hoses fussing over sidewalks."
More than 40 years after getting a "multicultural" permit to attend Beverly Hills High, Paysinger is one of the most recognized men in town. He's no TV star — he's someone's former coach, teacher or principal. When the stocky, jocular Paysinger walks down the street, kids in cars yell "Hi Coach!" and parents stop him on the sidewalk to chat.
Now Paysinger is challenging an entrenched white school board, which some critics say is weighed down by fiscal mismanagement; is micromanaging the jobs of educators; interferes in the superintendent's duties; and is emotionally chained to a costly and losing battle to stop the MTA Purple Line subway from tunneling beneath Beverly Hills High.
Can Paysinger, a popular leader, break a racial barrier in one of America's richest cities to become its first black school board member?
With the election set for Nov. 3, he stands in the backyard of a spacious home surrounded by teachers, residents and alumni. "Anytime you have a board of education that is routinely voting against their own superintendent and his staff, there's a problem," he says. "The interference and micromanaging has to stop."
Even before Paysinger jumped into the race, the insular community that dominates school politics had been uneasy.
In mid-2014, Paysinger sued the district for workplace retaliation, naming as defendants the district and school board member Lewis Hall, one of the incumbents Paysinger could unseat on Nov. 3.
"I want that behind me," Hall tells L.A. Weekly, sitting in the district boardroom — which is just across from his apartment, which is right by the high school.
But in the next breath, Hall slams educators who have sued the district — Paysinger is not alone — saying, "People see Beverly Hills as rich, and feeling entitled, and there's an option of being able to get money from us, because we're Beverly Hills and supposedly rich."
Five candidates including Hall are running for three at-large seats. Both Hall and Paysinger could win spots. Theoretically, the three challengers — Mel Spitz, a businessman and former school board member; Isabel Hacker, who has held multiple PTA positions; and Paysinger — could grab all three seats, ousting Hall and another incumbent, Noah Margo.
Making the racially intriguing contest especially tense is the fact that Paysinger recently won a settlement of $685,000 from the Beverly Hills School District. That arose from his complaint in U.S. District Court that Hall had launched an illegal retaliation scheme against him when Paysinger was principal at Beverly Hills High.
Paysinger had recommended against rehiring the school's track coach, and the superintendent and school board agreed and made the final decision. Hall took the side of some parents who wanted the coach to stay. Paysinger claimed that, in retaliation, Hall launched a wrongful probe against him, then leaked biased, damaging information to the Los Angeles Times.
Paysinger says such micromanaging of educators' duties by elected politicians is rampant, but the larger problem is that the board "has completely lost its way and is completely dysfunctional."
The picture he paints in his book, published by Simon & Schuster and co-authored by his longtime friend, former school board member Steven Fenton, is that of a once-great district. At his August campaign kickoff, Paysinger said, "We can be the best. ... We've been there before, we know what it looks like."
Fiscally at least, Beverly Hills has every reason to be a success. A special funding formula called "basic aid" diverts property taxes from five square miles of expensive real estate directly to the schools.
The taxes aren't funneled to, and then meted out by, Sacramento legislators — as with most California schools. And Beverly Hills parents have the time and resources to invest in the schools.
But the flip side is daunting. Parents who pay a rent or mortgage premium to send their kids to a Beverly Hills school expect service. They want their problems addressed quickly and, if need be, personally — and they'll go around a principal or teacher to seek out a politician on the Beverly Hills Unified School District Board of Education.
Hall and some of his board colleagues routinely overstep boundaries, Paysinger alleges. Word has recently spread, Paysinger says, and as a result Beverly Hills is "not attracting the best and brightest."
Hall insists that "[I] keep my finger on what's going on," and nothing more, and that he goes to Beverly Hills High School and directly contacts administrators so he can make informed decisions.
"We're making these decisions — it's not the superintendent," he says, in a nod to the very tug-of-war that Paysinger wants to end. Hall says it is up to educators not to be cowed by his style, adding, "If you ever feel like I'm giving you direction, then you need to ask, 'Is this board direction, or is it coming from you?'?"
Telly Tse, president of the Beverly Hills Education Association, the teachers union, told the Weekly that teachers realize some elected board members will try to interfere in classroom issues.
Paysinger claims, "You have teachers now that are afraid to really implement the curriculum they need to implement, because it's all about grades" — meaning that some parents fight any rigorous academics that might reveal their child can't actually achieve the grades.
Meanwhile, the school board is fighting its way out from under a pile of litigation — of which Paysinger's suit was the tip of the iceberg.
District documents show it spent more than $5 million on legal fees in 2014-15, much of it trying to fend off the MTA's all-but-certain subway tunnel planned to run beneath Beverly Hills High.
Other former employees who are suing include ex–assistant principal Amy Golden, who claims the board retaliated against her for supporting Paysinger when he was BHHS principal.
Talk to enough residents of this small city, and the consensus seems to be that Beverly Hills Unified is a luxury sports car speeding toward a cliff's edge. The question is whether it is at the edge or at the cliff bottom — and who should be driving.
Within a few blocks of the manicured real estate where Paysinger launched his campaign, and on the same August Sunday, Hall made his own pitch for re-election.
"I am quite bullish on the future of our school system," Hall said. "Now, if you listen to my challengers, the ones who are also running for school board, however, everything is gloom and doom — we're underfunded, rife with litigation."
Hall is, in many ways, Paysinger's foil. Tall and lanky, he's a relative outsider, having moved here two years before running for school board in 2011. He is, he says, "the most introverted person you've ever met."
Hall claims that "this entire controversy began when Mr. Paysinger chose not to renew the contract of our former track coach, Jeffrey Fisher." But in truth, it was Paysinger's boss, the superintendent, who made that call — and the board agreed.
Board member Lisa Korbatov, speaking at an October event on Hall's behalf, portrayed the Nov. 3 election as an existential threat that could destroy the board's legal battle against MTA.
If Paysinger, Spitz and Hacker are elected, she said, "I believe that these challengers will dismantle your legal team, they will dismantle the consultants, they will dismantle the strategy and they will surrender," allowing MTA to build on its preferred route. "And then you will look back on that moment and you will wonder why we lost it all."
Paysinger, Spitz and Hacker reject the idea that the board is some kind of victim.
Spitz, an accountant and banker, served as school board president from 1971 to 1979. Sitting in his office on South Beverly Drive, he calls Korbatov's and Hall's complaints "just a cop-out."
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UPDATE at 8:37 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 27:
Carter Paysinger came in just 87 votes short of a winning seat on the Beverly Hills school board and becoming the city's first elected black leader. But two other "outsiders" were elected, member Isabel Hacker and long-ago board member Mel Spitz, who said Beverly Hills schools were overrun by adult politics and interference from meddling school board members.
School board incumbent Lewis Hall, targeted as one of those meddlers, came in last in the five-candidate field, while board incumbent Noah Margo came in third to edge out Paysinger.
The votes were: Hacker 1,625; Spitz 1,561; Margo 1,365; Paysinger 1,279; Hall 773 votes.