As she walked onto a rally in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday, Monica Ratliff was greeted as a minor celebrity.
Hundreds of union workers were applying pressure on the school board to spend new state revenues on cutting class sizes and rehiring laid-off teachers, counselors, and librarians.
Adult education teacher Juan Noguera spotted Ratliff, who’d just arrived from her job as a fifth grade teacher, and asked if he could take a picture with her.
“Adult Education supports you,” he gushed.
"I support adult education," she replied.
Ratliff said it's this kind of ground-level support that will put her over the top. It's pretty much all she's got. Ratliff has run a part-time campaign on a shoe-string budget.
As election day looms for this year's remaining undecided seat for the L.A. Unified's board, outside groups continue to pour money into the race -- all of it for her opponent, political newcomer Antonio Sanchez.
Political action committees have spent nearly $600,000 on his behalf. The money has gone mostly to targeted full-color flyers and calls to some of the district’s nearly quarter of a million registered voters. Turnout in the city was less than 20 percent in the March primaries -- and isn't expected to improve on Tuesday.
Education researcher Bruce Fuller said Sanchez has a clear upper hand in the race.
“Mr. Sanchez has been out there on the campaign trail, and he has the money, and the discretionary time to be a professional politician," he said. "Ms. Ratliff is still trying to cover her classes and her day job. It’s kind of romantic and appealing that Ms Ratliff is teaching while having a more modest campaign.
"But money matters in terms of giving Sanchez more publicity, more time on the campaign trail,” he added.
Sanchez has been going door-to-door in District 6, which includes his hometown of Pacoima.
On Friday, he stopped to talk to Antonio Martinez, 63, who raised two children in this part of the east San Fernando Valley.
“What changes are you going to make in the schools?” Martinez asked him.
“Right now not all kids are reading at grade level and we have our graduation rate is too low," Sanchez replied. "I grew up in these neighborhoods and I know the challenges these kids are facing.”
Fuller, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said the outcome of Tuesday's election has implications for all of L.A. Unified. Three of the seven board members oppose huge chunks of the superintendent's agenda. Ratliff could be a fourth -- and that would have an impact on classroom policies.
“This race is really pivotal in terms of whether Mayor Villaraigosa and Superintendent Deasy’s reform agenda is going to continue and take deeper root in the district,” Fuller said.
Ratliff began practicing law in 1997. Nearly a decade later she changed careers, becoming a public school teacher. She serves as a union official for her school and a representative in UTLA's large policy-making body. Along with rehiring teachers who lost their jobs due to years of cutbacks, the union wants to reduce class sizes and improve the way teachers are evaluated.
Sanchez supports charter schools, using student test scores to evaluate teachers evaluations and other so-called reform policies endorsed by Superintendent John Deasy.
The Coalition for School Reform, a charter-friendly PAC created by Villaraigosa, has raised money from wealthy donors here and across the country to influence the race. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $350,000 over the last few weeks, his second large donation.
“I didn’t know that the donation was coming," Sanchez said as he walked the Pacoima neighborhood where he grew up, talking to potential voters. "I didn’t know that this race was going to cost so much. I had no idea.”
By comparison, Sanchez has raised less than $70,000 on his own -- and Ratliff a mere $30,000.
United Teachers Los Angeles -- for decades a force to be reckoned with in school board elections -- has stayed uncharacteristically silent during this runoff election. Records show the union spent no money in the two months since the primaries.
UTLA took the unusual step of endorsing both Ratliff and Sanchez, an urban planner who’s never been a public school teacher.
“Both of them are highly qualified candidates,” union president Warren Fletcher said. “Monica Ratliff is a classroom teacher who’s going to bring that perspective to the school board. And Antonio Sanchez is somebody who has a lot of background in governmental issues.”
Yet two years ago the teachers union spent nearly $1.5 million to support a teacher running against a charter school-friendly candidate.
Ratliff said she doesn't care about the money.
“I believe that I’ve had a lot of support from individuals within UTLA," she said. "There’s been a lot of teachers walking for me. And I believe that I have a lot of support within UTLA.”