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How outside spending is changing the race to represent northeast San Fernando Valley schools

District 6 School Board Candidate, Antonio Sanchez Wednesday, Feb, 20, 2013.
District 6 School Board Candidate, Antonio Sanchez Wednesday, Feb, 20, 2013.
Rebecca Hill/KPCC

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Next week, residents of the northeast San Fernando Valley will vote on their picks for Los Angeles school board, an unusual race where one candidate's firepower is far outpacing his opponents'. 

The campaign to elect Antonio Sanchez  has attracted just shy of $40,000 in direct donations and another roughly $895,000 to political action committees. As a result, he's been able to hire three paid staff members, had more than a dozen mailers go out on his behalf and was the subject of a commercial that aired during Lakers games.

By comparison, his two opponents together have raised only about $22,000.

“It’s humbling,” said Sanchez, 30,  who decided to run after finding out that incumbent Nury Martinez was leaving to pursue a city council seat. “I recognize that there are high expectations and I want to make sure that I can fill those shoes.”

Maria Cano, a laid-off LAUSD administrator, is running against him on a platform that includes rehiring scores of district workers. She is none too pleased with his war chest. She makes cold calls twice a day to prospective voters, trying to stretch the $9,000 she's been able to raise so far. 

“What’s at stake is whether voters can continue to see an election driven by the power of a democratic process or the power of money,” she said. “It starts sending the message that only those with money can make a difference.”

The slate to represent L.A. Unified's District Six, once 10 candidates, is now down to three. The third surviving candidate, fifth grade teacher Monica Ratliff, was amazed to learn how much had been spent on Sanchez's behalf.

“Somebody sent me a photograph recently of all the mailers they’d received. And I mean they literally covered this man’s table. And I just thought, wow, I just can’t counter that,” Ratliff said.

She wants to improve oversight on district spending and better prepare kids for college. To get the word out, one of the only methods she can afford is knocking on voter doors. So far, she’s visited about 400 homes. Ratliff has raised about $13,000.

All three candidates have been endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles. It marks the first year the union representing L.A. Unified teachers has backed more than one candidate for a seat.

So far the union has yet to spend any money on the District six race, according to the most recent data available from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. 

The real money in the race is coming from the Coalition for School Reform. The group, a political action committee created by outgoing mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to push back against the teachers' union, has gathered high-profile donations from Hollywood, $1 million from  New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and $250,000 from former Washington D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee.

The Coalition is backing Sanchez and one candidate in each of the other two school district races. That means that Sanchez, a political newcomer, is the only candiate to receive the backing of both factions.

“What’s exciting about Antonio is that he not only believes in improving our schools and reforming education but he also has a labor background. So he can be a great candidate who can help bring both sides to agreement and help bridge that gap,” said Janelle Erickson, the Coalition's campaign manager.

UTLA President Warren Fletcher said the coalition’s support for Sanchez came as a surprise. 

“On the one hand we were concerned," he said. "On the other hand Mr. Sanchez has been through our process. So none of the facts had changed that we had reviewed when we made our decision.”

Sanchez said he has friends on both sides. 

“When I received the endorsement of the coalition I thought this is an opportunity to work with everyone,” he said. “UTLA is one of those organizations that should be heard. I want to work with them, at the same time I understand that we do need to make some reforms.”

Sanchez, who grew up in Pacoima, worked as a former San Fernando Valley area director for Villaraigosa. He also was a field representative for Democratic Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez. While the coalition refers to him as an "educator" in a campaign ad, his only experience in the classroom is working as a UCLA teacher's aid for a few months after he graduated from the university with a degree in Masters in Urban and Regional Planning.

The primary election is March 5. If none of the candidates win more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face a runoff in May.

The three candidates for District 6 will speak at a forum at 6 p.m tonight, Feb. 27, at the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima. The event is hosted by Families That Can in partnership with local charter schools.