In Partnership with 74

Analysis: For the LAUSD board, changes in faces but not balance

Michael Janofsky | May 20, 2015

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

Bennett Kayser LAUSD* UPDATED

Voters wanted change, but the changes came from opposite directions.

For the first time since 2009, two seats on the LA Unified school board turned over at the same time in elections yesterday that proved once again how little Angelinos care about the people setting policy for the 643,000 kids attending city public schools.

Two incumbents lost — Tamar Galatzan in District 3 and Bennett Kayser in District 5. But each winner hews more closely to the views of the incumbent who lost in the other race, making the day’s results a political wash.

Scott Schmerelson, the primary runner-up who won with 55 percent of the vote to beat Galatzan, is a career LAUSD school administrator who had heavy backing of the teachers union, UTLA

Ref Rodriguez, the primary winner who won with 54 percent of the vote to beat Kayser, is a charter school co-founder who had heavy backing from the state’s charter schools association and other reform interests.

The charters did everything they could to defeat Schmerelson. The teachers union did everything it could to defeat Rodriguez.

Where that leaves the board in terms of ideology is probably not much different than where it was on Monday, with Schmerelson replacing Kayser as the pro-union member and Rodriguez replacing Galatzan as the pro-reform member.

At the very least, the results brought the board its only Republican, in Schmerelson, and its only openly gay member, in Rodriguez.

In the other race, voters in District 7 kept board President Richard Vladovic in place for a third term, a winner over Lydia Gutierrez, although it remains to be seen whether he’ll be reelected as president. He was the only candidate who had the support of both the charter schools and the teachers union.

All three winners get a 5 1/2-year term, as the city is moving these off-year and largely ignored elections to the even-year ballot that includes Federal and state elections. The incumbents who lost will remain on the board until June 30.

The outcomes yesterday remove one of the testiest relationships among the board’s seven members, that between Galatzan and District 6 representative Mónica Ratliff, two lawyers who rarely view policy through the same lens.

On the other hand, it creates what could become an even testier one between Rodriguez and Steve Zimmer, District 4, who set aside his usual calculated language the other day in favor of a blistering attack against Rodriguez and his backers for the nasty and personal nature of their campaign material against Kayser.

His remarks came a few weeks after he appeared at a Kayser fundraiser in which he gave an emotional us-versus-them stemwinder, pointing to the Armageddon ahead if a charter-backed candidate wins the seat.

“We cannot let them take control of the school board because if they take control of the school board, they’ll have control of who becomes the next superintendent of this district,” he warned at the time. “They’ll have control over the budget. They’ll have control over the policies. They‘ll have control over the schools.”

Among all board members, Zimmer is the one who casts himself as the Solon of the group, seeking peace and compromise, even if his side doesn’t get the better of the argument.

Now, he will sit beside a colleague at board meetings whom he apparently loathes — ideologically, if not personally.

As for whether Zimmer’s fears are justified, a lot depends on Schmerelson. While the teachers union spent half a million dollars to support him, he said last night, “I intend to be perfectly fair,” dismissing any notion he can be categorized as pro-this or anti-that.

As for turnout, it was pathetic. The largest numbers came in Schmerelson’s race, where 9.1 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. In Rodriguez’s race, it was 8.4 percent, and only 5.8 percent turned out in the Vladovic race.

And in each case, those who voted by mail determined the outcome. Schmerelson, Rodriguez and Vladovic all had leads before the first precinct was counted, which suggests they had the most passionate voters.

No one could blame the candidate backers for the lousy turnout. By a rough and still incomplete accounting, the charter schools spent about $1.2 million in since the primary on Galatzan, Rodriguez and Vladovic, with a new reform-based group, Great Public Schools: Los Angeles, kicking in another $475,000 for the same three.

The teachers union spent about $950,000 on Schmerelson, Kayser and Vladovic, and the service employees union, SEIU Local 99, spent about $440,000 for the Galatzan, Kayser and Vladovic. Former LA Mayor Richard Riordan spent $67,000 to help Galatzan and Rodriquez. 

Add it up and it’s over $3 million, a number sure to climb — all to get an average of 7.6 percent of eligible voters to set policy in the nation’s largest independent school district.

* Corrects earlier version to say Rodriguez becomes the only openly gay member of the board, not the first. Others have served before him.

Read Next