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QUESTIONABLE POLLS; LAUSD SPENT $225,000 TO ASK OPINIONS.

Byline: Peter Hartlaub Daily News Staff Writer

Do you find President Clinton believable? Do you trust the Los Angeles Unified School District or think it should be split up? And whom did you support in the 1997 mayoral election?

The LAUSD wants to know, and it has spent more than $225,000 in tax money since 1996 on a series of public opinion polls that administrators made public only when they were subpoenaed in a lawsuit.

The cost of each poll also came in just under the amount that would have required a public vote by the LAUSD board and thus, public knowledge about the expenditure.

Now, the district is paying an additional $38,500 to a public opinion research firm to improve ``public affairs strategies'' for the school district.

Beyond discovering that most people said they trust Clinton, want the LAUSD broken up and supported the re-election of Mayor Richard Riordan, administrators also found that parents want schools repaired, dismal test scores raised and more money spent on students.

For the cost of these polls alone, the LAUSD could have taught 60 more students at the district's 1996-97 average of $4,068 per pupil.

``How did those polls educate even one child in the district?'' asked Paula Boland, a former assemblywoman who is leading a campaign to break up the LAUSD and establish at least two autonomous districts in the San Fernando Valley.

``As a taxpayer, I demand to know exactly what benefit any child received by knowing the answer to who's going to win the mayoral race,'' Boland said. ``It's downright revolting, really. They're more interested in politics than they are in educating our kids.''

Deputy Superintendent Ron Prescott, who has supervised the polling for the last year, said the LAUSD benefited greatly from the research but never planned to publicize the results.

``We didn't really do these polls for anything except administrative information,'' Prescott said. ``It wasn't a political decision. We didn't do it for anything other than to learn from it.''

Prescott said the polling and the more recent consulting work - which isn't completed yet - has helped administrative relations and has been worth the money.

``My intent was to find out how to best communicate the district's priorities and how people feel about the district in general,'' Prescott said.

What the LAUSD has learned about the public's perception is that parents want more control over how their children's schools are run and who operates them. The LAUSD also found that people want the district - the nation's second largest - to be split into smaller parts.

Further, people largely supported a proposal outlined in the poll that would decentralize the LAUSD, bringing more control to communities. Prescott denied that the series of questions was designed to thwart Boland's campaign to dissolve the district.

``It was not set up to counter breakup,'' Prescott said.

Pollster John Fairbank of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates defended his work as helping the LAUSD find the best way to spend the $2.4 billion Proposition BB bond measure.

``The end result is to try to figure out how to spend these dollars wisely,'' Fairbank said, ``to help the district better understand the voters and their priorities and their needs.''

Polls approved privately

No public vote was taken to authorize the polls because they each cost under the $100,000 threshold required for the Board of Education to consider them in an open meeting. The threshold has since been lowered to $50,000.

Board member David Tokofsky said he hadn't seen the poll results but questioned why important decisions were being influenced by ``pollsters and neophyte management gurus instead of people who know what's going on in our schools.''

``The best thing to do is have people in charge who don't have to go and (pay for) consultants,'' he said. ``That's true in any field.''

Board member Julie Korenstein didn't know about the most recent set of polls until they were brought to her attention during a meeting with San Diego Unified School District officials.

While Korenstein supported the Proposition BB contracts with Fairbank, she said she was shocked to find out that the polling had continued.

``I was not aware of them at all,'' she said. ``Frankly, I spoke to the staff about it (and) I never was really convinced that these polls were essential or necessary.''

Assemblyman Tom McClintock, R-Granada Hills, who opposed the bond measure, said the polling is another case in which LAUSD administrators ``literally use the taxpayers' money against them.''

``I believe the LAUSD is the largest taxpayer-supported political machine in the history of the state,'' McClintock said. ``It is corrupt to the core.''

LAUSD not alone

Other school districts use polling in an effort to improve education. But school district officials in San Diego and Oakland said they didn't ask questions about other political campaigns.

Oakland Unified School District spokeswoman Jackie Reinhardt said that recent district polls have focused on such specific issues as class-size reduction.

The San Diego City Unified School District is polling voters about its own bond measure, but only $49,451 has been spent on three surveys and two focus groups, with no questions about the city's mayor.

``This was strictly to help facilitate the formation of our bond,'' district spokeswoman Norma Trost said. ``It was very focused: What do (voters) want to see in their neighborhood school?''

Polling for dollars

Several of the LAUSD's polls and focus groups were intended to help the district develop a ballot measure for the Proposition BB bond issue to repair and improve schools.

A Libertarian activist took three administrators to court last year, accusing them of using the polls to campaign illegally for the measure. By state law, the district is not allowed to spend taxpayer money for a campaign.

After the trial ended last month, a Superior Court judge found that the polls did not violate the law, although two LAUSD television commercials did.

Most of the LAUSD's polls have focused on school issues, including how people feel about breaking up the district, ebonics and whether they like Superintendent Ruben Zacarias.

But some questions veer in unusual directions, including what newspaper people subscribe to and whether people like Riordan, Sheriff Sherman Block, former Police Chief Willie L. Williams and other leaders.

Mayoral questions

One poll asked respondents whom they would vote for in the 1997 mayoral election, Riordan or state Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles, - a question Riordan's former campaign manager and Hayden's press secretary said they were unaware of.

However, Riordan spokesman Deane Leavenworth said Riordan has long supported issues involving children and doesn't consider the mayor's name out of place in an LAUSD poll.

``Education and Richard Riordan being in the same paragraph is not very surprising,'' Leavenworth said.

Prescott said the feedback about the mayor may have been relevant because of Riordan's endorsement of the Proposition BB campaign.

``I think people who are in that business understand pulse points,'' Prescott said of the pollsters. ``They ask questions that sometimes don't make sense to people who don't do it professionally.''

Fairbank said he included questions about Riordan, Block, Williams and others during the bond issue campaigns to get an idea whose endorsement would resonate with voters.

``We had to know if the mayor of Los Angeles supporting this bond was a good idea,'' he said. ``As it was, he was the best endorsement.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 27, 1998
Words:1228
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