Mayor Riordan’s candidates for school board share a curious set of attributes: They are in their early 30s, have no children and have little or no experience in the field of education. And it‘s not a coincidence.
Sources close to the mayor assert that inexperience counts when looking for the right people to guide L.A. Unified, the $9 billion institution charged with educating the city’s children.
”I want this board to become an amateur board again,“ said one civic leader with close ties to the mayor, who spoke freely in exchange for not being named. ”There‘s just this giant sucking sound the instant you set your butt into a seat on the Board of Education.“ In other words, if you know too much — or think you know a lot — you’ll try to do too much. You‘ll gum up the works by stepping out of the proper role of a corporate-style trustee.
This year’s elections are Round 2 of the Richard Riordan Revolution. For the second time, L.A.‘s self-described education mayor has raised more than a million dollars to put his candidates in office. His 2001 choices are Matthew Rodman, Jose Huizar — both of them 32 — and 35-year-old Tom Riley.
”I’m lucky to have strong candidates in each of the board districts,“ Riordan told the Weekly recently.
As described by those in Riordan‘s circle, being a board member is the ultimate starter job: Sure, the pay is low — $24,000 a year — but working really hard would be a bad thing, and the fewer credentials the better.
”I’m not sure you want someone with a track record in education,“ commented Eli Broad, another civic luminary, who has joined the mayor both in education philanthropy and in his willingness to wield influence. Broad noted that in Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley appointed a former city budget director to run the schools. And that a former immigration-service official got the nod as superintendent in San Diego. And that General John Stanford handled Seattle‘s schools before his death from leukemia in 1998. ”Where progress is being made, people are coming into the system from elsewhere. That is where we are seeing lots of success stories.“
Of course, not everyone sees the evidence this way, and not all of the mayor’s usual allies are on board with his slate, which was put together with substantial assistance from school-board member Caprice Young, the trustee to whom Riordan is closest. In District 4, which covers the Westside, some of the mayor‘s erstwhile allies wanted to stick with incumbent Valerie Fields. Others favored challenger Marlene Canter, who has considerable experience in education and business.
Coming from outside of education doesn’t have to equate with inexperience. Current L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer also lacked a traditional resume, but as the education-minded former governor of Colorado, he brings considerable political savvy, as well as a long focus on schools.
”If you get people in with strong ideas on what to do and so forth, they‘re not very controllable,“ suggested one district critic, who requested anonymity. ”This kind of candidate is. Would anyone apply a rubric of inexperience to any other elected body? It’s ridiculous.“
Indeed, the end point of this less-is-more logic would be electing a hamster to the school board, and, happily, all of Riordan‘s picks have substantially more to offer than a rodent.
Huizar, said Young, is ”a one-man think tank if you look at his academic background.“ A land-use attorney, Huizar has toiled for two years at the respected firm of Westin, Benshoof. For his previous firm, he worked as in-house counsel to several local suburban cities. His degrees come from UC Berkeley, Princeton and UCLA. While pursuing his graduate degree, he worked a year for the California Legislature, helping the Assembly Ways and Means Committee analyze the fiscal impact of education-related bills. He’s also served a year on the local planning commission for East Los Angeles. Huizar has no real competition in heavily Latino District 2, which covers much of downtown and parts east and south.
Young said she had no role in Huizar‘s recruitment, but that’s not the case with Tom Riley, whom Young met while both were fellows in the Coro Foundation, which places promising youths in leadership-training internships. Riley‘s running for District 6, which spans most of the San Fernando Valley. According to Young, ”the best thing about Tom is that he’s really deeply committed to kids. He‘s been active in the Big Brother organization. There are kids he’s seen through elementary school, middle school and high school. He‘s a great cook, and an up-front person. He’s good at taking issues and understanding their essence. There‘s a no-B.S. edge to him that’s refreshing.“
Said Riordan: ”I‘ve known Tom for years.“
Riley helped with Young’s successful board campaign in 1999, and Young encouraged his own budding interest in the school district, especially over the summer. ”I would whine on his shoulders at barbecues and eventually he felt guilty,“ said Young. Riley‘s fledgling business markets electronic bingo and keno game boards. His only clients are nonprofits, though he hopes to expand to casinos.
”I’m the first to admit I don‘t have a background in curriculum,“ said Riley, speaking to the Weekly’s editorial board. ”I‘m not an expert in curriculum. What I’m interested in is kids that are educated, that can read, write and do math and all the things that we expect from our schools. Educators love to spend hours debating, ‘Do we do Open Court? Do we do whole language?’ They always find some Ph.D. to defend their position. You can always find some guy who‘s gonna write why you should be using touchy-feely math and calculators. I think we need to look at what works and model our district after those successful programs.“
In contrast, his opponent, 14-year incumbent Julie Korenstein, understands the complexities, but the result, say critics, is that she’s cautious to a fault. Riley‘s eager to set himself apart from the 57-year-old Korenstein with take-charge positions, on finding desperately needed school sites, for example: ”People are going to lose homes. That’s leadership.“
In board District 4, which covers much of the Westside, Mayor Riordan has spurned both an experienced incumbent and an experienced challenger. Incumbent Valerie Fields, a longtime advocate of arts education, also was education adviser to Riordan‘s predecessor, Mayor Tom Bradley. Marlene Canter, the rejected challenger, is a former special-education teacher who built a multimillion-dollar teacher-training business. Her experience shows, for instance, in her nuanced comments on the school system’s Open Court curriculum.
”Open Court is an excellent reading program,“ noted Canter, who is 52. ”We just can‘t get lock-stepped into saying we are only using a single approach. We need to be open-minded enough to have supplemental help for children that particular program may not reach. There is not a reading program that is excellent for every child.“
Canter’s supporters include politically progressive businessman David Abel, a former appointee to the school-bonds oversight committee. ”Marlene Canter is fundamentally a person of maturity and character,“ said Abel. ”She is very knowledgeable about public schools and what goes on in them, and a refreshingly informed but independent voice.“ He added, ”There‘s clearly an adult running, and it isn’t the mayor‘s choice.“
The mayor’s choice is Matthew Rodman, who builds and rehabs strip malls in a third-generation family-owned business. ”The cool thing about Matthew Rodman,“ said Young, ”is that he‘s been active in the Explorer Scouts program for years and years as a volunteer, working with teenagers.“ Young also noted Rodman’s leadership roles in the Brentwood Homeowners Association and as a mayoral appointee to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission.
Rodman and Young had been in some of the same graduate-level public-administration classes at USC. Late last year, said Young, ”He called me and asked me if I thought it was a good idea if he ran for school board. I said I thought it would be great.“
Rodman picks up the story: ”I received a call from the Mayor‘s Office just after I filed to run. I was asked if I could meet with him. The next day. It was in West L.A. somewhere. I don’t recall where. I had soup. It seemed like he was in a mode to make some decisions. I‘m not sure exactly how he found out I was running.“
Speaking to the Weekly’s editorial board, Rodman presented himself as the man for this moment: ”I was watching a school-board meeting on cable. My wife thinks I‘m a little crazy sometimes because I talk to the TV and try to explain to board members — and of course they’re not hearing me — what due diligence is. I was amazed that the board members didn‘t know what due diligence is when you go in and want to buy a piece of property. And I was equally amazed that the real estate people didn’t know how much things cost . . . That would be absolutely unacceptable in the private sector.
“We are in an absolute real estate crisis in this district. Building is what I do for a living.”
Fields responded by offering to forward Rodman‘s resume to the facilities division. “Being a board member is not about trying to do the job of the real estate administrators. It’s about setting policy and making good decisions.” She noted that during her term, the board has overseen an entire revamping of facilities personnel.
On education matters, Rodman said he wants schools run like successful small businesses, and cites independent charter schools, such as the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, as models: “Principals should be the CEOs of their school,” with 100 percent control of the budget. But when told that such charters also have control of curriculum — which affects how schools use their budgets — Rodman retreated. Choosing curriculum, he said, should be a function of the central office.
The Rodman endorsement has led to division in Riordan‘s camp. Riordan stalwart Eli Broad emphasizes that he’s supportive of both challengers. Broad also concedes that he agrees with incumbent Fields, who is 74 years old, on 90 percent of things. “I‘ve known Valerie forever,” he said. But “I’d just as soon go with new people who are younger and fresher, people who bring a different energy and don‘t bring reasons why you can’t do it.”
Occidental College president Ted Mitchell, an education adviser to Riordan, also was careful to speak well of Rodman and Canter.
However, the money from the mayor‘s “Coalition for Kids” is controlled by Riordan, and it’s going to Rodman. For which Riordan made no apologies: “For the school board you need a person who‘s intelligent, focused and willing to change the governance of the school system. And also a person with the fire in the belly to get elected.” All his candidates, he said, meet these criteria.
In broad brush strokes, this school-board race is largely a battle between Riordan’s candidates and the teachers union, which has endorsed Korenstein and Fields. But to Occidental‘s Mitchell, the contest also is over governance style.
“In the Riley-Korenstein debate we have the clearest expression of two views of what a school board is,” said Mitchell. “In Korenstein, we see someone who is practicing the legislative model, in which members are elected to protect and advance the interests of their particular constituencies. With Riley, you have a more corporate model, in which the board sets an overall direction for the whole school district and holds management accountable for meeting the needs of the clients. This is a critical battle, a paradigm, the outcome of which is likely to shape the school district for the next decade.”
Mitchell favors the corporate formula, as does prominent Santa Monica attorney Virgil Roberts, another Riordan ally. “There’s a tendency, a strong motivation, when you have a problem, to jump in and fix it,” said Roberts. “If somebody calls you up, a constituent, and says, for example, ‘We’re about to lose our principal and please do something about it.‘” This approach, said Roberts, is the wrong one. Board members have to leave the work of the district to professional staff. The board’s job is to set goals, to evaluate progress and to hire or fire the superintendent.
Supporters of this view have even argued against raising school-board salaries higher than the current $24,000 a year; a low salary underscores that the job is meant to be part-time.
But this premise is not much of a campaign theme. Vote Rodman: He‘ll stay out of our schools. Vote Riley: He’ll work part time to help our kids.
And those are not the themes in play.
“The structure of this district is designed to fail,” said Riley. “You take seven people that are elected for part-time positions, give them one staff member and one secretary, and expect this $9 billion bureaucracy is going to start jumping. Are there any other elected officials in this state, at any level, that don‘t have staff?”
Rodman insisted, “It is my goal to visit every school every year. That is where you hear the tone and tenor of what is going on. You can’t staff out those sorts of things. My opponent doesn‘t visit schools like I visit schools.”
No, she doesn’t, in part because Fields ascribes to the mayor‘s hands-off notion as much as any board member now serving. Riordan had endorsed Fields, but withdrew his backing in January, after Fields supported larger raises for teachers than he did.
School-board President Genethia Hayes also disagreed with Fields on the size of the salary increase, but strongly supports her colleague nonetheless. “Nothing should rise and fall on one issue,” said Hayes. “Ninety percent of the time she’s been our fourth vote. She‘s been with us on nearly all the tough decisions.”
Hayes also shakes her head at the notion of preferring inexperience. “That logic escapes me. I think I’m better off for being strong and having an opinion. Just because you have a lot of experience doesn‘t mean you don’t understand the proper role of a policymaker.”
Not one of the current board members, including the Riordan endorsees, has stayed completely above the fray, a la the corporate model. The experienced Hayes, the novice Young and the hands-off Fields all voted to increase their annual discretionary funds from about $100,000 to about $200,000 apiece. Fields spends much of her money in grants to school sites. Young has hired a deputy to track school-construction projects. Hayes established a field office. Said Hayes: “You do have an obligation to make yourself available to the constituents who vote for you.”
Korenstein, by contrast, spends much of her discretionary money on a tutoring program. Though she‘s known for returning calls of parents’ groups, she forwards their concerns to staff. “Julie does it holding the staff responsible,” said fellow board member David Tokofsky. “In that respect, she‘s doing it more as they say you should do it than anyone else.”
If the Riordan slate wins, the only predictable outcome is that the influence of the teachers union would be eviscerated. The board would welcome three intelligent but rather blank slates. Caprice Young envisions fellow Young Turks who would share her impatience for progress.
Canter supporter David Abel is reluctantly meeting the mayor halfway. He supports Riley, because Riley is a personal friend whom he respects, but Abel remains critical of the process. “Spending $900,000 can elect Caprice Young, a former Riordan staffer, or anyone else of the mayor’s choosing,” said Abel. “It doesn‘t mean that these candidates come from the education-reform movement or have any allegiance to the broader community.
”I don’t think that SunAmerica would pick any of the Riordan candidates for its board,“ added Abel, referring to Broad‘s company. ”Would these people be picked for the board of the Getty? Paying these people $24,000 a year to manage a $9 billion enterprise, then making them dependent on a handful of givers for their political survival, is not the best way.“
Dave Perera contributed to this story.