Sunday, May 06, 2007

Why I’m Voting For Neal Kleiner…
He's for the People
By Diana L. Chapman

He’s called a long shot, a dark horse, a candidate with the lack of bucks, but I’m casting my vote for Neal Kleiner in the upcoming Los Angeles Unified School District board race for District No. 7 anyway.

And it’s not that I don’t like his opponent, Richard Vladovic – a long time Los Angeles Unified district administrator, lastly a principal in 1987 and the head of West Covina Unified School District until 2005. I do like him.
But it’s what I like about Neal that’s making me cast my vote his way –in particular his early stance in the candidacy that he would continue the court battle to fight the mayoral takeover over of the Los Angeles Unified School District. This smacked of unconstitutionality to begin with – and recent court rulings have twice rendered that very same decision.
This takeover bothered me so greatly that I searched for a candidate with a similar belief – a candidate who would immediately align himself against the mayoral takeover. Because no matter how you word it, how you write it, how you argue it, there’s no one who will ever convince me the city of Los Angeles – it’s own problematic entity which can’t afford to trim city trees or fix street potholes – could run the schools better than the district. Having worked both sides of the fence, all I could see in the future with this bill shoveled quickly through the state legislature at the behest of the mayor – if gone unchallenged, would trigger a much greater problem than we already have.
We’d have the blind city running the already semi-blind school district.
How would that work for our kids?
It doesn’t. So on May 15 – despite a predicted ridiculously low voter turn out and despite Neal’s uphill battle against a smoother, glossier and more polished Richard Vladovic – I’m marking a check next to Neal’s name.
“We won our independence because people here felt England was making laws for us,” Neal contended on his stance against the mayor’s takeover. “This is just the same thing and the courts threw it out. I will work with the mayor, but he just started running for the governor and using the school district as a political football.”
Granted, Neal’s only garnered about $50,000 to put in his coffers ($10,000 of his own) and never climbed too high in the district’s administrative arm, but remained dug in at the trenches as a principal at John Muir Middle School—a campus in the heartland of south Los Angeles near the Coliseum until he retired last year. At age 60, Neal has vowed to come back, join the board and work it more than a regular full time job. Who better to know the district’s faults than a former Los Angeles Unified School teacher whose career spanned the district for nearly four decades, beginning from teaching high school to ending his lengthy career as a principal within the district?
Both Neal and Richard are vying for District 7, an area that stretches from San Pedro in the south to drinking in Lomita, Gardena, Harbor Gateway, Carson, Watts and Athens and smaller portions of Los Angeles to the north.
Having someone who lives in and has recently served tougher schools in the district, brings a rounder vision to some of the district’s greatest problems – problems which he intends to address by promoting greater leadership skills at the top.
District superintendents, he contends, must include and work cohesively with principals and their staffs. Principals, he believes, deserve greater autonomy to make the school campuses work more efficiently and to address the needs of the student population.
His biggest supporters, in fact, are teachers and staff at John Muir, which is telling.
“I will represent (voter’s) interests as I have done for the last 38 years at the school sites and I’m not interested in politics,” Neal told me over a cup of coffee at his San Pedro home, where he has lived for 27 years, currently with his three elderly rescue dogs, Jake, Brandy and Cayla. “I’m in touch with what works. I’m the people’s candidate. I am not in the pocket of the mayor. I represent the people. I don’t pussyfoot around.
“I am an advocate for our children and not for the mayor.”
Neal has taken other strong stances as well. He’s against building a mega-high school on Western Avenue – or any other additional high schools in San Pedro. He believes that anchoring 9th grade academies, one at Angel’s Gate to serve San Pedro and another to serve Lomita residents, possibly at Harbor College, will help ease the overcrowded conditions at both San Pedro and Narbonne highs.
In the same breath, he readily admits, that’s not the only answer to overcrowding and that he will be exploring other options as well.
He also has spoken openly about his opposition to the proposed Ponte Vista Bisno development, a plan to usher in a gated community of 2,300 condominiums across from Green Hills Memorial Park. The project has gathered intense animosity and strain in town – dividing our coastal community
The proposal, he said, only intensifies problems for local schools and he doesn’t need a single traffic study to indicate the difficulties of future traffic problems. “You can’t get down Western Avenue now!” he argued. “I just don’t want San Pedro in a stranglehold.”
“I was never afraid to take a stand and that’s why I get into trouble,” he explained – one incident coming to mind immediately when he became outraged that parents dropping their children off at Muir for a few seconds were getting costly parking tickets.
He was so bothered by the issue, that he wrote asking the city of Los Angeles to remove signs and allow for a drop off zone and to give the parents – “many who are the working poor” – a break so they could legally drop off their children. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry agreed, made the decision with the Department of Transportation and sent the letter, saying the signs would be removed.
However, when parents were still getting ticketed before the signs were removed, Neal protested, presenting the official letter to parking officials and was threatened with arrest.
“I didn’t want to get arrested and I didn’t want to go to jail,” he said. “I just felt it was the right thing to do. My supervisor wasn’t happy. But I just felt it was immoral.”
He did not get arrested.
While walking precincts in Carson and Gardena, Neal said he’s found an overwhelming discontent among voters who seem greatly disturbed by the mayor’s proposal to run the schools. Many voters, he said, feel the way he does – that the mayor’s using the district to catapult to the state governorship.
This is the one issue, he believes, greatly separates him from Richard, his opponent who was endorsed by both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Janice Hahn. Richard has accepted $250,000 from the mayor, he contends.
Despite his opponent’s polish – and his popularity in town as many people here know him -- I still like the underdog in this race. I like Neal’s lack of political charm with these politicians, which means to me he will truly be making the decisions for me and my child – and not for Janice or Antonio or the long and lengthy lists of other politicos endorsing Richard.
As for the future, if he wins, he said, he plans to strengthen leadership skills of the local district supervisor’s, and ask them to work directly with principals, teachers and the community – rather than just mid-level managers.
He also plans to visit schools weekly, and determine why some schools are working and others aren’t to see if he can carry over some of the successful programs to other campuses. And coming from an area where students died frequently from gang shootings – either innocently or not so innocently -- he has learned that no matter what, students have to be kept busy all the time to distract them from the pressures of urban life.
While these killings never happened on his campus, he said, the school had to brace frequently for another youngster’s death. For those reasons alone, he’s a big advocate of invoking after school programming at all campuses and obtaining more joint use projects with schools and their surrounding communities, such as using school’s basketball courts and fields.
Neal, now divorced, has two children who graduated from San Pedro High School, a daughter, Nicole Wesley, 31, and Jay, 34. Like their father, they too were educated within Los Angeles Unified Schools. Neal, a big advocate for a public schools, speaks Spanish fluently, started his own educational career as a child with Los Angeles Unified in 5th grade and graduated from James Monroe High School.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in political science at UCLA and
a master’s in educational administration from California Lutheran University.
With his hands in the mud like the rest of us trying to make lives better for students, I will vote for Neal because he’ll have something more simple in his back pocket to watch out for – people like me and you, our kids, and not our slick and shiny politicians.