Big players silent on LA Unified endorsements

MOCA Gala Chair Eli Broad attends 'The Artist's Museum Happening.'
MOCA Gala Chair Eli Broad attends 'The Artist's Museum Happening.'
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for MOCA

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In a month-and-a-half, voters within L.A. Unified’s wide boundaries will be asked to cast ballots for four of the seven seats on the school district board of education. Observers say the result could radically shift the way the massive school district carries out its reforms. Others say that the campaigns have been particularly quiet for such a high-profile race.

Philanthropist Eli Broad has spent millions of dollars in the last decade to elect L.A. Unified school board members who support his education reform agenda. He vowed to remain involved in these elections.

"My wife and I will donate to candidates that are reform-oriented. We’ve talked to the mayor and are working with Mayor Villaraigosa on supporting a number of candidates," Broad said at the unveiling for the design of his new L.A. museum a few weeks ago.

Broad hasn’t released a public list of endorsements. On Friday, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wouldn’t disclose whom he’s backing, either. "I’m just focused on making sure that the board, that is, clearly moving in direction of transformational reform, has the support they need," Villaraigosa said after a court ruling on Friday that protects beginning teachers at dozens of L.A. Unified schools.

Scott Folsom, who's been with the Parent Teacher Association in L.A. Unified for more than a decade, says he knows why Villaraigosa’s acting coy about his school board endorsements.

"People that I talk to, especially people that are paying attention to public education, even the governance of this city, are unhappy with the mayor, so his endorsement could backfire," Folsom said. He'd filed to run for the L.A. Unified school board, he said, but dropped out last month after he realized the large sum he'd have to raise to compete.

L.A. Unified board member Tamar Galatzan, who’s running for re-election in March, disagreed that candidates are wary of the mayor's endorsement.

"The mayor has really had a tough term, there are probably a lot of people in the community who really do consider his endorsement," she said. "But he has really stayed active in public education in really shining a light on some of the issues that we’re facing in the district."

Galatzan’s first campaign four years ago broke school board election fundraising records. Mayor Villaraigosa helped her raise much of that money. Galatzan says she has not asked for the mayor’s endorsement and hasn’t decided whether she will.

Her campaign has benefitted from tens of thousands of independent expenditure dollars from a group called The Coalition for School Reform. The coalition’s also spent similar amounts in support of candidates Richard Vladovic and Luis Sanchez.

The Coalition lists only two officers: high-profile Southland lawyers Virgil Roberts and Charles Shumaker. Roberts has advised Mayor Villaraigosa on education matters; he’s also on the board of Southern California Public Radio.

On its website the coalition features an endorsement by former Mayor Richard Riordan, who’s worked with billionaire Broad and Mayor Villaraigosa in past school board elections.

Former school board member and education consultant David Tokofsky says a cap on campaign donations directly to candidates, that voters approved four years ago, has lent a lot of fundraising clout to groups like the Coalition for School Reform.

"The major consequence of Measure R passed by the voters is the independent expenditures. The caps on spending have caused the campaigns to be nontransparent, hugely private, and nobody knows what in the world is going on," Tokofsky said.

This L.A. Unified school board campaign may be quiet in some regards, but Tokofsky expects the volume to rise as campaign mailers land in many district voters’ mailboxes.