Dumb as a Rock

It's onward and downward at the L.A. school district, as school board members elect the dopey, anti-reform Vicky Castro as their president

A wise man once said that the price of democracy is a diligent and balls-out free press, or something like that, and those words rang through my skull the other day at the news that the incompetent and manipulative Victoria Castro had just been elected president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

Last week, without any notice in the media, the seven-member elected board, which is quite possibly among the most reviled big-city school boards in the nation, sat down to anoint its new spokesperson and leader. The vote was preceded by weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering among the members, few of whom like or respect one another — and for good reason.

In the early running was incumbent President Julie Korenstein, a San Fernando Valley resident who traditionally would be expected to represent her colleagues for two years. But Korenstein’s position was up for grabs because of her inept oversight of the board during the past year, in which she allowed endless and idiotic nit-picking and sniping between board members, who rarely took a break from their posturing to discuss why the majority of Los Angeles students cannot read, write, or compute at grade level.

Also running was Vicky Castro, a woman who lusts after power but was rejected by Eastside voters this spring in her bid to become a state assemblywoman. Castro did not seem to me to have much chance at the board presidency, even in the face of Korenstein’s dithering reign, because Castro is dumb as a rock and gratingly saccharine in her blind cheerleading over “how great” the schools are.

Indeed, it was impossible for me to believe that Castro could get any vote besides her own. She has embarrassed herself as a strident anti-reformist who, among other things, opposed the district’s long overdue nationwide search for a new superintendent; opposed creation of an independent committee to watchdog the district’s handling of vast new monies from the Prop. BB bond issue approved by voters; opposed efforts to uniformly test student achievement; opposed the now-infamous fight by immigrant parents to get English classes for their children at the Ninth Street School on Skid Row; and sneakily worked to assure that the boondoggle Belmont Learning Center was funded by the school board.

As Skid Row activist Alice Callaghan reminded me, Castro’s refusal to help Mexican-American parents at Ninth Street School, who wanted normal English rather than “bilingual education” for their kids, “is what caused the Ninth Street School boycott by parents, which Ron Unz read about in the paper, and which inspired Ron to launch Proposition 227 for kids who are denied English.” History will show that Castro’s arrogance and stupidity led directly to the launching of the anti-bilingual ed movement.

In other words, history will show that Castro’s arrogance and stupidity led directly to the launching of the anti-bilingual movement.

But Castro’s Walk of Shame is completely irrelevant to most of the elected school board members, who are so caught up in protecting their butts that five of the seven members voted for Vicky as president.

The most horrendous pro-Vicky vote was cast by the Westside’s Valerie Fields, who was elected last year over the more reform-minded Kenneth J. Sackman after major Westside contributors decided Fields would be more effective.

Instead, Fields is turning out to be a rerun of the phony Mark Slavkin, the Westside’s supposed golden boy of reform who sat on his thumbs for eight excruciating years before mercifully resigning from the school board to go bother the nice people in his new job at the Getty Center. Harold Williams, the recently retired president and brains behind the Getty, was one of Fields’s biggest contributors, and one wonders what he must be thinking now. (Williams could not be reached for comment.)

Fields told me she voted for Castro “because Julie told me she wasn’t going to run.” But more important, Fields says, “Vicky is thoughtful, and she doesn’t appear to have a hidden agenda, which is important. She’s not rigid, hasn’t got her feet stuck in cement.”

When I reminded Fields that Castro opposed the nationwide search for a reformist superintendent, the Prop. BB oversight committee, and the Ninth Street School parents, Fields responded, “That took place before I was elected to the board, so I really can’t comment.”

That’s the sort of claptrap one expects to hear from spineless board members like George Kiriyama, who was widely expected to back Castro and did. In a closed-door deal last year, the wannabe Kiriyama was promised by Vicky that she would name him vice president this year if he backed her as president.

But poor George got screwed last week after Vicky made a secret deal to name board member Barbara Boudreaux the new vice president, in exchange for Barbara’s vote. When Korenstein realized she could not count on Boudreaux for her vote, Korenstein ceded the job to Vicky.

The other member solidly in Vicky’s corner was Jeff Horton, the slimy lefty who was recently elected vice president of the California School Boards Association by falsely claiming in his campaign that he led “reform” at L.A. Unified. Horton, in fact, vociferously fought the nationwide search for a school superintendent and the crucial creation of the Prop. BB oversight committee.

Aside from Korenstein, the only opposition to Castro was David Tokofsky, who as the board’s Bulworth is widely despised by his colleagues for telling the truth about the ongoing three-ring circus. Indeed, according to Tokofsky, Boudreaux has cautioned him that Vicky Castro “is going to be very vindictive toward me because I am frequently quoted in New Times about how poorly the district is doing and how poorly the board is handling it.”

Most journalists in L.A. dismiss the school board presidency as an insignificant and ceremonial job. Wrong.

Tragically, it is a bully-pulpit job that carries with it vast powers, as Korenstein sadly reminded us during her one-year stint. For example, Korenstein was quoted by the L.A. Times in the last 12 months no less than 50 times. In addition, the president controls debate at public meetings, as Horton so disgustingly showed during his tenure when he cut off virtually every discussion in which the board flirted with possible classroom reforms.

With Castro’s election to a job she will hold for at least 12 months, it is critical to remember just how much trouble this particular school board can cause in a short period of time. I offer herewith a short list of the board’s and district’s activities during the past seven or eight weeks:

.In one of its frequent and utterly illegal secret meetings, the board approved the purchase of untested two-story portable classrooms complete with elevators which at $43 million cost nearly four times the price of normal bungalows. The board was forced to reconsider when the Daily News found out about the scheme.

.Teachers protested in Northridge over the board’s asinine policy of letting students who are kicked out for carrying guns attend a different school during an expulsion process that the namby-pamby school board allows to drag on for months.

.In a sneak attack, district bureaucrats sent an extensive list of 11th-hour demands to two charter schools the very day a report was released extolling their successes. After getting caught by the media threatening to withdraw the two schools’ charter status, the district said it was all a big misunderstanding.

.An expos? by the L.A. Times revealed that the school board chronically and belligerently holds secret meetings in defiance of state law to vote on controversial issues of crucial importance to the public. Castro is a huge fan of secret meetings.

.Superintendent Ruben Zacarias and his do-nothing Deputy Superintendent Lilliam Castillo forced a LEARN school, Valley View Elementary, to hire as its principal a man who who has never before been a principal but is politically well-connected.

.District environmental health director Hamid Arabzadeh was forced to resign by district officials just two days after testifying before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee that the bizarre decision by the school board to put Jefferson Middle School on a toxic waste site in South L.A. occurred because the district’s shoddy review of the land failed to detect the toxins.

.Zacarias’s worthless Associate Superintendent Carmen Schroeder, a longtime pusher of the district’s failed bilingual education program, told L.A. principals that Prop. 227 will not take effect in L.A.’s year-round schools until 1999, in direct defiance of the new law.

.District bureaucrats attempted to trick parents at Nobel Middle School in Northridge into believing they had to accept controversial “fuzzy” math at their school, but the scheme was disrupted when math professors from Cal State Northridge demanded to be heard at a “public” meeting where the district was presenting only its side of the issue.

.Districtwide scores from the Stanford Nine test were abysmal, showing a tiny 1 point rise to the lowly 33rd percentile nationwide. Yet district officials (apparently using fuzzy math) saw a “reason for encouragement” in the figures.

Last week, both Tokofsky and Korenstein abstained from voting for Vicky Castro, in the usual make-nice tradition of the board. But a powerful message could have been sent if Tokofsky had successfully convinced Valerie Fields to join in refusing to support Vicky The Terrible, thus giving her a badly split 4-3 approval.

Instead, Fields weakly buckled to the board’s unfortunate status quo. And in so doing, she reminded us once again that while the Westside is the center of wealth and political sophistication in Los Angeles, money and savvy don’t guarantee a dime’s worth of courage.

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