Los Angeles County's second-largest school district is in the final days of a bare-knuckled school board campaign. The race for two school board seats in Long Beach Unified pits two incumbents against candidates backed by the teachers union. The candidates have been crisscrossing the school district's neighborhoods and speaking at forums organized by civic groups. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman Lopez attended one of those forums.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: A few nights ago, 55 people filled every chair in a community room near Long Beach Poly High School.
Loretta Sampson: We'll welcome you here to this evening for this candidate forum.
Guzman-Lopez: National Council of Negro Women chapter president Loretta Sampson urged participation, with restraint, in this meeting.
Sampson: Don't make it so long with your questions, because I know we don't want to be here all night. (laughs)
Guzman-Lopez: At the panelists' table sat the two incumbents, Jon Meyer and Felton Williams; his challenger, teacher Rosa Diaz; Meyer's two challengers, labor lawyer Paul Crost, and former Long Beach Unified administrator Karen Hilburn. This race isn't just between these individuals. It's also about the organizations endorsing them. The Long Beach Chamber of Commerce backs the incumbents. The Teachers Association of Long Beach is endorsing contenders Diaz and Crost. If elected, Crost says, he'd listen to his main backer, the teachers union, to advocate for instructors.
Paul Crost: And as a board member, I intend to give them a voice and to be responsive to their needs. I am not going to be a rubber stamp for the teachers association, as has been suggested by people on my right and on my left. I am not going to be turning the school board over to the association.
Guzman-Lopez: If Crost and Diaz win, four of the five school board members would enjoy union endorsement. The board has plenty of control over a nearly $800 million annual budget. It also makes curriculum decisions for the Long Beach schools' 89 campuses.
Teachers union president Mike Day says his members approved a six dollar monthly dues increase to boost the union's political profile. For years, Day says, the union's been shut out of major school board decisions. That can't go on, he adds, especially as school districts are likely to cut their budgets.
Mike Day: We have a lot of members that are continually on the chopping block, namely nurses and librarians, and, you know, I think with a teacher friendly school board that, you know, those positions will not just be maintained but you know, hopefully increased.
Guzman-Lopez: Long Beach Chamber of Commerce President Randy Gordon says he expects his group to spend slightly less than a hundred thousand dollars to fight off the teachers union challengers. Their victory, he contends, would derail hard-won gains in the district's test scores.
Randy Gordon: This is the first time in the history of our chamber that we have endorsed candidates for a school board race. We believe that they want to control the school board, and we believe that is not a good thing because we believe that the future of our great superintendent is in jeopardy.
Guzman-Lopez: The teachers union denies they want the superintendent fired. Test scores are sluggish at high schools in Long Beach Unified's impoverished north and west side neighborhoods. Candidate Karen Hilburn, who's challenging Jon Meyer, told the forum she'd focus more attention, and more vocational education money, on those schools. Incumbent Felton Williams conceded the district's record is far from perfect, but he added that the school board deserves some credit.
Felton Williams: Long Beach Unified is on the right path, it's got a plan to make sure that it serves all of its students and serves all of its students effectively. And we are moving that plan, ladies and gentlemen, we are moving that plan, one student at a time.
Guzman-Lopez: After the speeches, some in the audience said the school board needs new ideas and new blood. Others applauded candidates who said the school district needs to do more to reduce gang violence.
Teachers union influence doesn't guarantee better schools, says Priscilla Wohlstetter of USC's school of education. It's more important, she says, that parents and other adults beyond the classroom are paying attention.
Priscilla Wohlstetter: Because the school districts in California are so enormous, and because the turnout for school board elections is so low, it's very exciting when you have an election in Long Beach where you've got people really rallying to try to influence and become involved in the school board election.
Guzman-Lopez: Voters in Long Beach Unified's eastside and north central sections cast their school board ballots on Tuesday.