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Election 2015: In LAUSD board election, it's charter schools vs. labor unions with others left behind

Los Angeles Unified school board candidates, from left, Andrew Thomas, Ref Rodriguez and Bennett Kayser take a group photo after a debate at Eagle Rock High School on Feb. 5, 2015. Cheryl A. Guerrero for KPCC

Los Angeles Unified school board candidate Ref Rodriguez collected $21,000 in campaign donations from employees of his charter school network, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, in his bid to unseat incumbent Bennett Kayser in East Los Angeles’ District 5.

Most striking, a handful of his workers – a janitor, maintenance worker, tutor — are donating at or near the contribution limit, $1,100.

The contributions are a measure of supporters' high hopes to unseat Kayser in favor of Rodriguez, a candidate friendly to charter schools.

Rodriguez, an charter school administrator at Partnerships to Uplift Communities, received most of his financial support from the California Charter School Association Advocates, which received donations from such wealthy donors as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and philanthropist Eli Broad.

Kayser, a former teacher elected as a board member in 2011, collected his largest donations from labor unions, particularly the United Teachers Los Angeles. 

Most of the money working toward Kayser and Rodriguez's reelection are not funneled into their individual campaigns, but to independent expenditure committees which are not subject to the $1,100 contribution limit.

In her first foray into political giving, Luz Maria Lopez, an office worker, donated $1,000 donation to the Rodriguez campaign, twice the amount of Partnerships to Uplift Communities' CEO, Jacqueline Elliot.

“I really believe in Ref. My kids go to PUC schools,” said Lopez, who has been employed by PUC since it opened 15 years ago.  

The employee contributions weren't coerced and will not be reimbursed, Rodriguez said. Many of them can be traced back to a holiday break fundraiser at Rodriguez’s sister’s home in La Puente.

“I know for many of them this is a tremendous sacrifice,” he said. “It’s just been sort of an outpouring of folks belief in me and what we are trying to do for the city.”

Charter school groups major funders

Direct campaign donations from individual contributors, such as Rodriguez’ employees, make up 18 percent of the money spent in the LAUSD’s District 5 school board race. 

The biggest donor is charter school advocacy groups, such as the California Charter School Association Advocates.

Donations have also come from self-described education reform groups that support charter school expansion and firing teachers deemed ineffective, among other issues.

All told, the advocacy groups contributed more than $700,000 to activities in support of Rodriguez and working against Kayser.

On the other side, UTLA funneled $330,000 of members’ contributions to activities supporting Kayser and working against Rodriguez.

While UTLA has turned up its political spending in the board race to stay competitive, it is routinely outspent, said Oraiu Amoni, the union’s political director.

“We never are going to be able to match [reformers] dollar for dollar,” Amoni said. “So our biggest thing is making sure our members are educated, are engaged, are aware — and vote.”

So far, campaigns and committees have spent more than $2 million on the 13 Los Angeles Unified school board candidates, according to filings with the L.A. City Ethics Commission. The contributions have paid for mailing of glossy ads, phone banks, billboards, robocalls and commercials on Spanish-language radio. 

Total contributions are expected to increase in the few days remaining before the primary and swell again in any May runoff. 

Even in major races, aggressive campaigns fueled by growing contributions from special interest groups make it difficult for candidates not affiliated with interest groups to stay competitive.

Limitless independent expenditures are "playing a major role in smaller and local elections,” said Ryan Brinkerhoff, campaign manager for Andrew Thomas, the unaffiliated candidate in the District 5 race.

Thomas, a professor at Walden University, donated $51,000 to his campaign, making him his own biggest contributor. He’s also attracted sizable local support: about 70 percent of his campaign donations come from residents who live in District 5.

Thomas has received no contributions from political action committees or advocacy groups.

Can he win?

“I think so, but it’s getting harder and harder,” Brinkerhoff said. “The results of this election are going to be very telling.”

Outside contributors, local concerns

When public schools were created in the United States, local communities were given control over their governance. Outside money “undermines the relationship between community members and their local public institutions,” according to John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA. 

“It undermines their sense that they own those institutions, and those institutions are theirs to be shaped,” he said.

Without the funds from Broad, Bloomberg and other large donors, Rodriguez’s employees’ contributions would have made up more than 30 percent of his campaign support. Instead, it’s 4 percent.

Kayser has also received support from outside the district, including donations from the American Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association.

"The voters have an interest in open and transparent elections in which outside dollars don't have too large an influence," Rogers said. 

To read more about the school board election and City Council races, visit the KPCC 2015 voter guide.

Clarification: This article has been updated to make clear that the California Charter Schools Association does not support or advocate for teacher firing policies. Support for incumbent Kayser from outside the district has also been noted.