Below is an interview that appeared in the December 13 edition of the Beverly Hills Weekly:
Weekly: What made you decide to run for the school board?
Lunn: I had been watching school board meetings for a couple of years and was amazed by the lack of intelligent debate. Also, we had two children at Beverly Vista and I could not get a straight answer about when the children would be out of the trailers. The School Board had wasted four years without meaningful progress on the construction issues, and seemed unconcerned about the trailer debacle at Beverly Vista and about the low achievement test scores at all the schools.
Other BV parents were similarly concerned. Everyone was complaining, but no one was stepping forward. My wife and I both felt that the current board was incompetent, and, along with a number of other parents, we had signed a letter to the Courier complaining about the situation at Beverly Vista. Alissa Roston was head of the Beverly Vista PTA at the time, and she was interviewed by the Courier regarding the parental complaints. She dismissed us as a ďvocal minority.Ē My wife then wrote a confrontational follow-up letter to the Courier warning the Board might find out at the next election that such vocal minority could vote. I also signed that letter.
Weekly: So thatís when you decided to run?
Lunn: No. I decided to run on August 8, 1997, which was the deadline for filing. There was an article in the Courier that day that bemoaned the fact that no one was running against the incumbents and encouraging SOMEONE to file by the end of the day. I was inspired by the Courier and decided to run as a protest candidate.
Weekly: So you drove to Norwalk that day to sign up as a candidate?
Lunn: Thatís correct. In fact, I did not even have time to discuss this with my wife, who was surprised to say the least when I finally got her on the phone on my way back from Norwalk. She was not too pleased at first, but ultimately became my best campaign worker.
Weekly: So what happened next?
Lunn: First, let me emphasize that I was running as a protest candidate. I believed that this would be over in a few months and there was zero chance that I would win. However, four things happened that changed that. First, all of the sudden, people who I had never met started calling me to offer their assistance, and as the months passed, I got a lot of help. Second, I spent many hours studying the school district budget and academic performance data, and found that I could easily document that the district was being mismanaged. Third, Barry Brucker entered the race. Fourth, I got the endorsement of the Courier.
Weekly: So on election night, you were surprised?
Lunn: No, on election night I was pretty sure that I had lost. I was hundreds of votes behind, and Rudy Cole announced on channel 6 that I had lost.
Weekly: So were you relieved?
Lunn: Yes, and I got a lot of calls congratulating me for my valiant, yet failed effort. Also, the time that I had spent campaigning had put me way behind at the office. So I was looking forward to chomping down on some juicy estate plans and prenuptial agreements.
Weekly: So what happened next?
Lunn: Well, on Thursday they counted the write-in ballots and I got a call informing me that I had beaten both incumbents by a margin of over 5%.
Weekly: Why do you think that you won?
Lunn: The prior school board was so taken with its own propaganda, telling everyone how great the schools were, that it hadnít stopped to listen and identify the problems ó thatís why I believe that Barry and I were able to beat two personable incumbents.
Weekly: You declared yourself as a one-term candidate from the beginning, didnít you?
Lunn: Knowing that I was not running for re-election allowed me to be frank and to publicly hold people accountable, which are traits that are rarely exhibited by people who are concerned about getting re-elected.
Weekly: Looking back at your four years on the Board, what are you proudest of?
Lunn: The fact that Barry & I never gave up in insisting that the district pursue state bond funds, so that the taxpayers of Beverly Hills could get some of their money back from Sacramento. This should have happened in 1994 or 1995, but the prior board and staff had resisted the idea. Through sheer persistence on our part, the people of Beverly Hills eventually benefited by almost $15.5 million of state bond funds and interest on such funds, and I think that, eventually, the district will receive another $3 million or more relating to Beverly Vista.
Weekly: And your biggest regrets?
Lunn: The time that this took from my family and my practice. I am also saddened by the fact that politics continues to stand in the way of giving the children of Beverly Hills the schools that they deserve. Our levels of basic academic achievement, as reflected in standardized test scores, should be in the top five in the state, not in the top 30 to 50, but I donít think that this will happen unless the public elects at least three board members who genuinely commit to this goal. I am not saying that test scores should be an end in themselves, but I have never heard any satisfactory reason (but lots of unsatisfactory excuses) for why we usually rank somewhere between number 30 and number 50 in California, and number 4 to 7 in LA County.
Weekly: That was a sore subject early in your tenure. As I recall, there was at least one contentious meeting in which the president of the teacherís union was very irritated at you about your complaints about low test scores.
LUNN: Yes, that was Stewart Horowitz, who was then and still is a good friend, but who felt that I was putting too much emphasis on test scores. After much reflection, and a whole lot of research, I now believe that standardized testing is absolutely essential to improving public education, but in order for this to work, the tests need to be aligned with the curriculum, and the curriculum needs to be excellent. Think about it. There are certain basic things that we want kids to know at particular grade levels. For example, by grade level three or so, we should expect every kid to be able to multiply all numbers between one and twelve. This is specified in the state curriculum and is covered by the Stanford 9 Achievement Test. If our test scores are among the top five districts in the state, then we at least know that we are doing a superior job in imparting the basic knowledge and skills contained in the state curriculum. If, on the other hand, out test scores lag behind comparable districts, as they have for years, then the Board should require a credible explanation and a plan for doing better.
My four years on the school board have taught me that if there are not clear and measurable goals, there is an extremely high probability of a mediocre result. By far, the most important function of the school District is to provide an excellent basic education for every child. A properly aligned test will measure this pretty well, and promote excellence.
Also, so that Stewart does not have to give me another lecture, let me emphasize that, particularly in Beverly Hills, we should be teaching beyond the state curriculum and beyond the Stanford 9 tests, and that even a perfect record on achievement tests should not be the sole measure of the Districtís success.
Weekly: Do you have any other regrets?
I regret the failure of the Board to go through a zero based budgeting process, which involves looking closely at every line item in the budget and at every program. It was clear to me in 1997 that the District was wasting millions of dolars, and I lobbied for a zero based budget process from the outset of my term on the Board. We came close to doing this in 1999, when Allison was on the Board, because we had three votes in favor of such process. However, with all of the problems relating to Dr. Pellicone and the turnover at the District office, we were not able to get this done. After we lost Allison, there were no longer three votes for this. I think that this is inexcusable. The Board is charged with directing and monitoring the expenditure of an annual budget exceeding $40 million, yet little attention is paid to the details. Also, this process is not unprecedented -- the City goes through a similar process every year, which allows the City Council to carefully consider and discuss every expenditure, and also allows the public to see the process. Frankly, my feeling is that by never addressing the details of the budget, the school board has never been in a position to do a good job.
In a similar vein, to some extent or another, over $50,000,000 of construction spending appears to be ďmissing in action,Ē again because of a failure of the Board to adequately monitor the expenditure of public funds. I hate wasting money. I drive a 34 year old car and turn off the lights in empty rooms when I get home. I was frustrated by the waste of millions of dollars of the Districtís general fund budget and tens of millions of dollars of the construction budget.
Weekly: What do you have to say about the contentiousness of the board?
Lunn: Politics got in the way. Virginia Maas and Richard Stone had endorsed the candidacies of both Barry Brucker and Allison Okyle, and I think they expected them to tow their line. The senior board members were condescending and arrogant -- it was a power issue and a personal issue for them, apparently. At the first meeting, they persuaded Barry to vote against himself as Vice-President, based on the ridiculous argument that a new Board member, even one as capable as Barry, would not be qualified to serve as Vice-President. This was hooey and a blatant grab for power that was grossly undemocratic in light of Barryís recent landslide victory over two incumbents, but Barry is a very nice man who cares far more for kids than power, and Solomon from the Bible was not there to award the baby to the mother who was not willing to cut the baby in half.
Barry, Allison and I just wanted to improve the quality of education for our kids, and get the shovel in the ground at all the schools. Richard and Virginia appeared to care less about the fact that the voters had elected us to do exactly that and were pretty open about their attitude that new Board members should be seen but not heard. Eventually, we derailed their plan to make Richard President in December, 1998, which would have made him President for an unprecedented three out of eight years on the Board and would have insured that the platforms that we ran on would be ignored for another year.
Weekly: In December, 1999, after Allison Okyle was defeated and Richard Stone retired, you were passed over for the Presidency?
Lunn: Yes, a petty act that included both revenge and personal self-advancement. My law practice was so demanding in 1998 that I had already declined to accept the vice-presidency when it was my turn, and had nominated Allison Okyle, who served in my place. In 1999, after Allison was defeated, it was my turn to serve as President. However, by working out a deal behind closed doors and voting without public discussion, the new Board majority of Virginia Maas, Willie Brien and Alissa Roston elected Willie as President and Alissa as Vice-President. They were wrong to do this. It sent a bad message to the people of Beverly Hills and to our children.
Weekly: What message was sent?
Lunn: This is a small town. No matter what we teach our children about resisting peer pressure, its power is alive and well amongst the social elite of Beverly Hills. Too many people are afraid to reveal their real thoughts for fear of social ostracism ó of offending the powers that be. Itís hard to make improvements, to make changes, when people are afraid. What lesson will future prospective Board members draw from what happened to me? Will they be willing to take positions that might be unpopular or will they hold back. Such acts discourage diversity of thought, and discourage intelligent people from running for public office. What will follow will be the same old stagnation, propaganda about how great the schools are and back-patting.
Over the years, I have spoken with a number of very successful, intelligent people who reside in Beverly Hills about them running for the Board. The most popular reason that such people refuse to run is that they would be hamstrung by the politics of conformity.
I would also note that I ran for the Board as an angry parent who would be relentless in pursuing numerous reforms that were outlined in detail in my platform and later on my website. By denying me my turn as President, Virginia, Alissa and Willie cheated the voters who had elected me by a substantial margin over two incumbents. We try to teach our children to take turns and to respect others who hold differing views. It will be interesting to see how the voters might respond to these people if they run for re-election in 2003.
Weekly: your recommendations for the future school board?
Lunn: The Beverly Hills School Board needs members who are detail-oriented enough to ferret through the mass of facts and figures, and with enough business sense to understand them. The input from the district office should not be accepted on a carte blanche basis. This is a guaranteed recipe for mediocrity. Someone needs to ask the hard questions, the answers to which affect the education of thousands of children in our schools. I took my job very seriously, and expected our personnel to do so, as well. Other Board members characterized this level of attentiveness as micro-management and acted bored or petulant when I wanted to analyze the details. However, I am glad that I was often able to identify and avert mistakes before they were made ó the type of mistakes that had cost our district hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past Ė and I am proud that I ignored their juvenile behavior and kept asking the hard questions. I am also disappointed that after the new Board majority took over in December, 1999, we accrued a construction deficit that I believe will ultimately exceed $25 million. I donít think that this would have happened or even could have happened if the Board majority had not abdicated detailed oversight of the construction. Clearly, their philosophy of trusting the staff, getting home early, and hoping for the best has not been effective in terms of the construction budget.
Weekly: What about Dr. Gross? Do you think that she can turn things around?
Lunn: Overall, I believe that Dr. Gross is by far the most effective of the six people who sat in the superintendent chair during my tenure on the Board. For the most part, I am also impressed by the people she has hired. On the other hand, I believe that Dr. Gross would be more effective if the Board would perform its function of setting clear District goals that contain ascertainable milestones, such as eventually breaking into the top 10 districts in the state in terms of test scores. Unfortunately, I will be surprised if this happens anytime soon, because the philosophy of the current Board is very passive and because the staff has never been anxious to commit to specific measurable goals. I would also note that I can understand Dr. Grossís desire to pass a $90 million bond issue so that there will be a huge discretionary fund for further construction, but I am appalled by the quality of planning that led to this, by the fact that such planning was not made available to the public at large and by the Boardís audacity in trying to milk the taxpayers based on a telephone survey.
Weekly: You surprised some people by voting against the $90 million bond, but donít you think that some bond is needed, at least to cover the shortfall from the first round of construction?
Lunn: For a number of reasons, I believe that a $40 million bond would have been far more appropriate. The District could have tried to prove itself as to such $40 million, and then taken the time to develop and publicize a detailed plan for handling any remaining deficiencies. The plan that I have seen has more fat than a lard factory and fails to adequately focus on items that will improve learning, and there has been too little analysis as to the likely needs of the District ten or twenty years down the road. I also think that less focus on additional construction would have allowed Dr. Gross and the Board to concentrate on mitigating the huge program cuts that were made last year. Instead, I fear that the focus will remain on construction, not on issues that are more important to educating kids, like reducing class size, improving curriculum, teaching proper values, and using proven strategies, like the internet, to improve communication with parents
Weekly: It sounds like you might run again in 2003?
Lunn: If things donít improve dramatically, I might get concerned enough to mount another protest candidacy in two years. However, if there are three qualified, independent, committed people who want to run in 2003, then they should call me next year and I will provide them with lots of interesting information and documents, and will contribute generously to their campaign funds. In the meantime, I plan to spend more time with my family, do some trout fishing, and learn how to play the saxophone.