Candidates Spend Millions in Race for School Board Seat

Two seats on the L.A. Unified Board of Education are open in this week's runoff elections. In one of those races, candidates are likely to spend more than $3 million to win a part-time position that pays $24,000 a year. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: On this day, the campaign trail for a seat on the nation's second largest school district leads to a Granada Hills strip mall.

[Sound from community hall]

A candidates' forum begins at a community center housed between a Pep Boys auto supply and the Two Guys from Italy Pizza House.

The two dozen people who turn out grill the candidates about charter schools, school lunches, and the millions of dollars flooding into the campaigns of incumbent Jon Lauritzen and challenger Tamar Galatzan. A school board meeting kept Lauritzen from the forum, so one of his deputies filled in.

Granada Hills resident Julie Carson asked Galatzan if the millions of dollars L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's spending to help elect her means he's buying her vote. Galatzan said no.

Tamar Galatzan: I'm not the kind of person where you say "jump" and I say "how high?" I'm a thoughtful, independent person who pretty much speaks her mind. And I got into this race never having spoken to the mayor. I met with him by the end of November and I told him what I wanted to do, why I was running.

Guzman-Lopez: After the event, the questioner said she wasn't satisfied with the answer.

Julie Carson: The mayor's financed her and I think that's the reason he's running her, is he didn't get what he wanted with his legislation to take over the district, so this is his opportunity to get a vote on the board.

Guzman-Lopez: Carson is talking about the defining issue in L.A. education this last couple of years: Villaraigosa's legislative effort to win some influence over L.A. Unified. Two state courts have struck down the law. A third is studying the matter.

Julie Carson teaches at Kennedy High. She said she's voting for incumbent Jon Lauritzen because he's helped build up vocational and adult education programs at her school.

Carson's union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has dug deep into its coffers to support Lauritzen. The union opposes the mayor's reforms. It's expected to spend more than a million and a half dollars to help re-elect him (Lauritzen).

That's Lauritzen's problem; he's in bed with the union, said forum attendee Chris Silvers. In four years on the board, Silvers said, Lauritzen's done little to solve L.A. Unified's most pressing problem.

Chris Silvers: The idea that kids can keep screwing up, keep disrupting classes, keep getting bad grades and get passed on to the next grade is going to keep tearing apart the school system.

Guzman-Lopez: Silvers likes Galatzan's credentials. She's a deputy L.A. city attorney with a son about to start kindergarten at an L.A. Unified school.

Being a parent, incumbent Lauritzen responded, isn't enough to ensure competence as an L.A. Unified school board member. Lauritzen taught in San Fernando Valley schools for 35 years. At his Chatsworth district office, he bragged about some of the commendations he's collected.

Jon Lauritzen: The city of San Fernando Valley honored me for some of the programs we've done.

Guzman-Lopez: Four years ago the teachers union helped Lauritzen defeat an incumbent former mayor Richard Riordan had supported.

During Lauritzen's term, L.A. Unified has taken on a massive school construction project. Many reforms in place before Lauritzen's term have helped raise test scores in the lower grades. But the district's aggregate test scores remain below the state average. Lauritzen doesn't take responsibility for that.

Lauritzen: I think that we as a school board have done what needed to do to get our scores moving up. I feel that the schools in my district, the scores have been going up.

Guzman-Lopez: Lauritzen hasn't succeeded in eliminating his district's extremes. El Camino Real High School remains an academic powerhouse. Across the valley, Grant High is inching toward improvement. The school scored 636 out of 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index.

Pomona College politics professor David Menefee-Libbey believes many voters in this election will rely on campaign mailers, not independent analysis.

David Menefee-Libbey: People for the most part don't pay attention to that kind of inside baseball, and a lot of the public debate is really shaped strongly by the kind of information that the candidates are putting out and their supporters are putting out.

Guzman-Lopez: At the Harbor end of the school district, Mayor Villaraigosa is endorsing a candidate in L.A. Unified's second runoff election. It's a big stakes gamble. A win by both Villaraigosa-endorsed candidates would, for the first time, give the mayor a sympathetic majority on the school board.