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Analysis: A deal with the teachers soon may carry a Kayser message

Michael Janofsky | April 9, 2015

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Could a deal between LA Unified and its teachers union, UTLA, be close at hand?

The answer is a definite maybe, judging by the accelerated schedule of meetings with the mediator trying to bring the sides together. Two more sessions are scheduled — today and tomorrow. 

If that’s a sign of progress leading to an agreement before the May 19 general elections, it suggests there might be a connection to the District 5 school board race between incumbent Bennett Kayser and the challenger who beat him in the primary, Ref Rodriguez.

OK, so it’s just a theory. But let’s play it out:

Here’s the working assumption: An agreement in the next few weeks reflects the possibility that the union wants to play it safe with the election, that it might view Kayser as vulnerable, unable to pull off the victory as he did four years ago when he won the seat after a second-place finish in the primary.

Kayser is the union’s strongest ally on the board. More than any other member, he has held the line against the rapid growth and popularity of charter schools in LA Unified. In whatever ideological split there may be among the board members on such issues as charters and reform efforts, Kayser has been UTLA’s best friend. He has also been a champion for early education and special needs education, which require additional instructional assets.

But he has run up against a muscular foe in the California Charter Schools Association, which spent more than $600,000 for Rodriguez, a charter schools executive, in the primary campaign and has already begun spending for Rodriguez in the runoff. A review of Kayser’s votes on charter applications and renewals shows that he has voted against two of every three since 2011, making him the least supportive of charters among all seven board members. 

Gary Borden, executive director of California Charter Schools Association Advocates, a political action committee, said defeating Kayser is a priority for his group. “His voting record over the last four years is diametrically opposed to everything we’ve worked on,” he said.

While UTLA spent almost as much for Kayser in the primary, it’s entirely conceivable that the union does not want to roll the dice on the outcome of the runoff, based on a calculation that any final agreement with board member Kayser would be better for teachers than any deal with board member Rodriguez, or even board member-elect Rodriguez.

Kayser’s current term ends June 30, but lame duck status over his final few weeks could dilute his strength and influence.

There’s another way to look at the advantage of a pre-election deal for UTLA: it could serve as a potential boost for Kayser’s campaign efforts.

Thousands of happy teachers, whose views carry a lot of weight in their school communities, would solidify his base. A deal would also give him a new front in the campaign, enabling him to claim that he played a major role in delivering teachers their first new contract — with raises! — in nearly eight years.

The wildcard in all this, of course, is turnout. For the District 5 primary in March, just 9.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots, and that was a day when voters had other races to on the ballot to consider. The District 3 race that sent incumbent Tamar Galatzan and Scott Schmerelson forward, drew 10.5 percent of registered voters. The District 7 race, which sent board President Richard Vladovic and Lydia Gutierrez into the runoff, attracted only 4.6 percent.

This time for District 5 voters, there’s only a school board seat at stake, which may not be enough to bring out more than the most fervent supporters of either candidate. Given Kayser’s large base of support, low turnout could prove to be his greatest advantage. But the teachers union might not want to take the chance.

That’s the theory, anyway.

* Corrects title for Gary Borden.

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