UTLA pulls two school board endorsements

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A month before a key Los Angeles Unified school board election, United Teachers Los Angeles has pulled its endorsement of two candidates it had already spent more than $70,000 to help elect.

In a statement, the teachers union said Jesus Escandon had withdrawn his candidacy for the Harbor Area seat on the LA Unified School Board. The Los Angeles Times reports he’d been arrested for drunk driving about two decades ago. He could not be reached for comment.

United Teachers Los Angeles also said a background check of candidate John Fernandez, who’s running for the Eagle Rock to South Gate district, had raised concerns about that candidate’s honesty and integrity. The union will pull its endorsement and oppose Fernandez’s candidacy.

"I’m very shocked and saddened by this outrageous maneuver by AJ Duffy," Fernandez said.

Union president Duffy, Fernandez said, is tainting a 31-year L.A. Unified teaching career. Fernandez said he had not revealed - and the teachers union had not asked about - any financial problems when it vetted him to endorse his school board campaign.

"Whether or not I filed my taxes for 2004 or filed for bankruptcy, the needs of the students and the situation we’re in, the crisis we’re in, severely overrides an issue of a bankruptcy or something like that," he said.

The teachers union said officers would not comment on the withdrawn endorsements. Fernandez said his opponent in the race, Luis Sanchez, approached the union with the information. Sanchez would not comment on that allegation.

Persuading a candidate to bow out, as opposed to giving them money to do so, is not illegal. Elections lawyer Frederic Woocher said it happens in local and national politics.

"What is a little unusual is that this information would not have been vetted a little beforehand, I mean, typically candidates don’t put them in the position where there’s information like this that can come out that can be damaging to them because they know there’s going to be the glare and the scrutiny of a hard fought campaign," Woocher said.

UTLA made a nearly identical blunder five years ago. The union spent about $200,000 on the school board campaign of a teachers’ union organizer. After the endorsement, news reports revealed that the candidate had lied about his academic credentials. A UTLA source said the union didn’t apply proposed reforms to the endorsement process that could have prevented another such incident.

UTLA’s political agenda is in disarray, said former L.A. Unified teacher Louis Pugliese, who’s running for the west San Fernando Valley district seat on the L.A. Unified school board.

"No one’s advising them on strategy, they should have their own, internal political consultants, they shouldn’t have to go and hire people after the fact," he said.

The UTLA source said union leadership is fast-tracking an overhaul to its political endorsement process. It’ll start with hiring a full-time political director.

The changes are likely to happen too late in the union’s efforts to oppose L.A. Unified school board candidates supported by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and philanthropist Eli Broad in the March 8 primary election.