Monday, March 05, 2007


By Bob Sipchen | SchoolMe! - LA Times (Monday's column, Mar. 5, 2007)

The apparent venality of Tuesday's school board elections brings to mind a knock on my front door a while back. It was the weekend, and as I recall my wife and I were covered with that aromatic dirt that Home Depot sells in big plastic bags.

The neighbor standing on our doorstep pretended not to care how we smelled. He was gathering signatures to run for the Los Angeles Unified School District's Board of Education. Our children had gone to school with his daughter at the neighborhood elementary school. The moment felt all-American.

It was illusory.

School board elections, education histories tell us, once reflected democracy at its cornpone purest. In Tuesday's contest for four seats, vested interests have shoveled well over $2 million into the coffers of candidates running for part-time jobs that pay less than a high school dropout might make as assistant manager at a fast-food joint.

To figure out how this makes sense, try this problem in basic school board math:

  • About the time that school board candidates began campaigning in earnest, those on the board were agreeing to hand the teachers union a 6% raise, plus benefits, retroactive to July, and worth perhaps $200 million.
  • If reelected, board members Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and Jon Lauritzen, the only incumbents running, would immediately be drawn into the decision about how much to give the union next time. For its part, the union has given more than $450,000 to each of them.
  • Meanwhile, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Better Schools, a group created to advance the mayor's education agenda, had, at last glance, raised more than $1.6 million, much of it from builders and business types who usually don't have much to say about education. Prosecutor-turned-board candidate Tamar Galatzan alone received more than $800,000 of that largesse.
  • Galatzan is running against Lauritzen, who, like LaMotte, bucked the mayor on his takeover bid. Which helps explain why, as my colleague Howard Blume has noted, individuals sympathetic to the mayor are giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to LaMotte's opponent, charter school operator Johnathan Williams.

So: If X = a school board member's salary of about $25,000, and Y = the amount people are willing to spend to get their preferred candidate elected, what is the value of Z, the possible payoff?


A) The future of the children, upon which no monetary value can be placed.

B) Many millions in slam-dunk salary and benefit increases and other concessions for the union.

C) A potentially massive piece of the district's $19-billion construction budget or some of the stray billions floating around for contracts on everything from algebra books to umpteen gallons of cafeteria teriyaki sauce.

D) All of the above.

Alas, like a once wonderful teacher who burned out because the union opposed the sort of merit pay that might have motivated him to keep working hard (and who now can't be fired because principals are hamstrung by contract restrictions), I don't really have an answer.

I do know that my neighbor, Scott Folsom, decided not to run for the school board seat in part because of the "obscenity" of trying to raise $500,000 to $1 million for what is ostensibly a part-time job.

Not that Folsom is some sort of political puritan who recoils at the idea of money dirtying up the democratic process. But I do think it's sad when a quintessential concerned parent gets bullied out of grass-roots do-goodism by Big Money.

Folsom's first encounter with public education LAUSD-style came many years ago, on the day he walked his daughter through the doors of Mount Washington Elementary School. "My initial experience wasn't a happy one," the semiretired producer says.

It wasn't the peeling paint that got to him, but rather an autocratic principal who, he says, acted as if parents were an inconvenience and met Folsom's efforts to find the appropriate class for his daughter by tossing up an impenetrable tangle of bureaucratic obstacles.

Folsom opted for private school, but returned when "the best principal in the world" replaced the obstructionist. He started volunteering, then joined the school's PTA and eventually wound up as that organization's president for an area covering most of L.A. Unified except the Valley. He continues to work without compensation to organize parents and advocate for them and their kids.

Along the way, he also was appointed to a committee to oversee the bond money voters had given the district to build schools.

Soon he had his own L.A. Unified hard hat and was spending his life at policy meetings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Then there's his perverse attraction to school board meetings, which Folsom attends, without coercion, apparently for the sheer joy of marveling at members' willingness to discuss endlessly such matters as the merits of plastic spoons and then decide without debate multimillion-dollar budget matters.

He quotes Mark Twain: "God made the idiot for practice, and then he created school boards."

But gradually Folsom began to find satisfaction in changing things from within.

He was already moving on toward the next level of obsessive involvement when he realized that the time he invested in raising money as a candidate might be better spent trying to talk people out of cash to support such PTA projects as free and reduced-cost dental and eye clinics for students.

Tuesday's ballot offers voters a chance to, as my colleague Joel Rubin put it, "rein in the frenzied nature of school board races." If enacted, Charter Amendment L would set a $1,000 limit on individual contributions to board members (last Monday, one contributor alone sank 100 times that amount into the campaign of Williams, LaMotte's opponent). It also would subject contributions to the city's stricter ethics scrutiny (though it would do nothing to stop independent expenditures such as those made by the mayor's education fund). And it would set up a committee to reconsider the size of board members' salaries.

None of this adds up to much. We can hope, however, that it proves a tentative prelude to the shrinking, restructuring and reform the district must undergo to achieve manageability.

And that might make it possible for candidates to wade into the fray and win or lose a board seat based not on the kindness of potential predators with deep pockets but on energy, ideas and freewheeling candidate debates held in school auditoriums.

Even now, of course, candidates do gather in public. But you almost want to say, "Why bother?"

Example: When a cluster of neighborhood groups put on a candidates' forum recently at Carthay Center Elementary School, LaMotte sent the teachers union's charmingly cocky president as her proxy.

In a district with a normal sense of propriety, that sort of coziness would seem beyond creepy. In L.A. Unified, it's business as usual.

LaMotte attributes the matter to a scheduling conflict rather than a conflict of interest.

"The union endorsed me," she said. "We have the same goal — what's best for kids."

I've met few Southern Californians who don't thrum in resonance with such "good for the kids" sentiments. But pathetically few of us bother showing up to vote in school board elections.

With turnout low and interest even lower, the elections become auctions. The bidding goes insane.

And well-meaning candidates, taxpayers and about 700,000 students get elbowed aside.

# # #

Dear Bob:

Thanks for telling my story; in the end I'm sure it's the story of many good people scared away from running for elective office. Maybe running shouldn't be easy - certainly getting elected isn't!

Though I support some of the stated goals of Measure L (campaign finance reform, better compensation for school board members) I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that I support it, I don't.

Measure L violates the state constitution proscription of lumping two issues in a single ballot measure. It was crafted without consultation with the school district it's supposed to help. And it was never vetted through Los Angeles' neighborhood councils - a city charter requirement. It also sets term limits - which I oppose and has proved a failure in California government.

It's as if the city council said: "Hey, term limits don't work for us …let's impose them on the school board!"

Until the parties to the greater debate (The Mayor and The School Board - or teachers and administrators and parents and the powers-that-be) start looking at collaboration as a good thing and not as fraternization with the enemy we are going to be stuck in this, whatever it is.

The only enemy is ignorance.

- smf

Scott Folsom

Mount Washington

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