Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

LA Unified school board races attract millions; will they draw voters?

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Based on the media coverage and celebrity endorsements  the Los Angeles Unified School District  school board election has received, you’d think sitting on the seven-member panel was one of the most glamorous jobs in LA. And it is … if your idea of glamour is working crushing hours to wrangle a behemoth district that’s trying to reinvent itself amid warring factions. All for less than $50,000 a year.

The contest for the three seats is taking place at a crucial time for LAUSD — and there are two powerful forces at play: labor, led by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, versus a particular brand of education reform, spearheaded by Superintendent John Deasy. The two sides disagree on the most important issues:

“What’s at stake [is] our superintendent,” said Janelle Erickson, campaign manager for the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee created by outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that's raising —and spending — millions on candidates who support Deasy. She said Deasy is “turning our school district around.”

Among the candidates is incumbent and school board president Monica Garcia, who is battling five challengers to defend her position in East LA’s District 2: Annamarie Montanez, Isabel Vazquez, Abelardo Diaz and Robert Skeels. All but Vazquez are backed by UTLA in an “anyone but Monica” campaign.

In District 6 , which covers the northeast San Fernando Valley, three candidates are competing for the seat vacated by Nury Martinez, who is running for City Council. Teacher Monica Ratliff and laid-off administrator  Maria Cano said their home-grown campaigns can't compete with massive spending on behalf of Antonio Sanchez, the only candidate backed by both UTLA and the Coalition for School Reform.  

And in the race for District 4 — the only race certain to be decided in the March 5 primary election — Steve Zimmer is hoping to win re-election over charter reform-backed candidate and fundraising superstar Kate Anderson.

A referendum on ideologies

Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the election is a referendum on two distinct ideologies. “One that is advocating a particularly aggressive brand of reform in the areas of student testing and student evaluations and compensation, and those who do not believe that that type of reform is appropriate,” he said.  

Districts across the country are grappling with this same issue as they try to transition away from No Child Left Behind. To win federal waivers from the increasingly onerous requirements of the law, states have had to promise to use test scores in assessing teachers.

LAUSD has not been a leader in the types of education reform that President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been advocating.

“But if the reform candidates are successful," Schnur said, "then it’s entirely likely that Los Angeles becomes one of the most aggressive reform movements in the country.”

As a result, advocate money is pouring in. Disclosure reports filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission show that more than $4 million has been spent on the battle over the seats — and it's only the primary election. In 2011, about $4.5 million was spent in four races by the end of the runoffs.

The Coalition for School Reform has raised almost $3.5 million to benefit Garcia, Anderson and Sanchez.

“They are the three candidates who have concrete plans to improve our schools and cut the downtown bureaucracy,” said Erickson of the Coalition for School Reform. “The coalition is interested in electing a progressive school board that will support Superintendent Deasy in improving our schools.”

Stretching his reach across 3,000 miles, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in two weeks ago with a staggering $1 million contribution to the coalition. Only days later, former Washington schools chancellor and CEO of StudentsFirst Michelle Rhee gave $250,000.

Hollywood is also making a cameo in the races, with contributions coming from director Wes Craven, record executive David Geffen and several television and film heads.

Labor PACs outmatched

Political action committees formed by UTLA, SEIU local 99 (which represents non-teaching school staff) and the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, are outmatched dollar for dollar. With less than a week to go, UTLA has only spent real money on the Zimmer-Anderson race. It appears to be saving its political money for the runoffs.

“They have the dollars, we have the credibility,” said UTLA president Warren Fletcher.

Fletcher is counting on the manpower that unions can bring to a political effort. Dozens of callers and precinct walkers can be quickly mobilized, and a handful of union leaders have a proven ability to rally their membership to the polls.

“When we talk to the community and we say this candidate is going to protect classrooms and classroom funding,” he said, “they believe us.”

But he's taking a risk. By holding back on spending in Districts 2 and 6, they’ve left open the possibility that one or both of the Coalition’s reform candidates could win their respective seats outright.

Here's a primer on each of the races:

District 2

Two-time incumbent and school board president Monica Garcia is fending off challenges by teacher and PhD candidate Annamarie Montanez, community organizer Abelardo Diaz and education activist Robert Skeels, who are all backed by UTLA in an “Anyone but Monica” campaign.

Montanez is running "to help protect" teachers, after receiving multiple layoff notices herself, due to the district's budget shortfalls.

Diaz's campaign has focused on shrinking class sizes and implementing professional developement programs for teachers.

And Skeels and a fifth candidate not backed by UTLA, teacher Isabel Vazquez, have both committed to curtailing charter school growth. 

Garcia, who’s seeking a third term, is the lone reform candidate for the East L.A. seat. She beleives in charters and is a staunch supporter of Deasy.

So far she’s benefited from more $600,000 in campaign spending by the Coalition for School Reform and has eclipsed all others in fundraising with about $330,000.

UTLA has spent almost $100,000 attacking her record.

With five names on the ballot odds are high this race will almost certainly go to a runoff.

District 4

This is the most hotly contested and scrutinized of the races, because with only two candidates in the running, it will definitely be decided on Tuesday night.

Some argue that the outcome of the race will determine the fate of the district if incumbent Steve Zimmer — who is the sole swing vote on the otherwise evenly divided board — loses to Kate Anderson.

Zimmer, a former teacher, said the district is approving too many charters too quickly. He wants to slow down the pace. He also wants to limit the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. On the other hand, he's a Deasy supporter.

Anderson is a former congressional staffer and attorney and a darling of the reform movement. The Coalition for School Reform has pumped nearly $1.1 million into what Anderson calls “Kate Country,” and it’s the only race to which UTLA's political action committee has devoted significant resources on behalf of a candidate — Zimmer.

Not suprisingly, Anderson is for charters and a Deasy supporter. She said she wants underperforming teachers to find another job.

District 6

The slate to represent L.A. Unified's District 6 — once as large as 10 candidates — is now down to three. The survivors include former lawyer-turned-fifth-grade-teacher Monica Ratliff, laid off school administrator Maria Cano and Antonio Sanchez, whose background is in politics and labor organizing.

All three are backed by UTLA. But Sanchez is the only one with an endorsement from the Coalition for School Reform because of his stated commitment to Superintendent Deasy’s vision for the district.

That kind of support — including contributions from the SEIU and AFL-CIO — has lead to more than $900,000 spent on behalf of Sanchez, and many believe he could win the race outright on March 5.

Ratliff has built a campaign on greater fiscal transparency and compromise at the district level. And Cano said she is "not supportive" of using student test scores in teacher evaluations. 


An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified both Maria Cano and Monica Ratliff's current employment. Ratliff is actually a fifth grade teacher and Cano is a former LAUSD employee. 

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