How will this LAUSD school board election differ from District 5’s last race? Will January’s teacher strike boost turnout? Experts answer these questions, and more, about Tuesday’s vote
Taylor Swaak | March 4, 2019
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On Tuesday, L.A. Unified’s Board District 5 will hold a special election to fill a school board seat that’s been vacant since last year, potentially determining whether the board swings more pro-reform or more pro-union.
The board district’s students — who are nearly 90 percent Latino — haven’t had a representative since last July, when education reformer Ref Rodríguez resigned after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges. The race is packed with 10 candidates, seven of whom are Latino. Though the board district, known as BD5, was drawn to help elect a Latino, the largest fundraisers thus far are white candidates: former L.A. City official Heather Repenning, former charter school executive Allison Greenwood Bajracharya and former board member and union-backed charter critic Jackie Goldberg. Huntington Park councilwoman Graciela Ortíz has raised the most campaign funds of the Latino candidates.
Polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. The public can check the county registrar website for election results starting between 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, a spokesman confirmed, adding that the site will then be updated about twice an hour. Mail-in ballots received before Election Day will be counted in those initial updates, he said.
It could take “about a week or a little longer for [the county] to receive and process all of those mail ballots,” Political Data consultant Kevin Callan wrote in an email to LA School Report. More than 147,000 residents were sent vote-by-mail ballots, he noted, but “obviously not all of them will vote.” There are more than 310,000 eligible voters in the board district.
This race has been unique so far in its lack of financial support from powerful pro-charter backers. Tuesday will also be the first district election since January’s six-day teacher strike.
We asked the experts …
- Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles,
- Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, and
- Paul Goodwin, a local pollster who’s worked on independent expenditure campaigns funded by California Charter Schools Association Advocates
… about the BD5 race, and what to expect. Here’s what they said.
Q: How does turnout in a special election typically compare to a regular election?
Regalado: “Fewer people turn out for special elections than they do any other type of election — simply because it’s singular to a specific district, a specific set of communities, with candidates specifically targeting certain audiences.”
Sonenshein: “Generally speaking, special elections have lower turnout than regular elections, especially since the regular elections have now been moved to even-numbered years. … Turnout is always going to be higher in even-numbered years.”
The county had processed about 15,000 absentee ballots as of Monday morning, Callan confirmed in an email. He anticipates that those will make up “a little less than half of the total ballots that will end up being cast in this election.”
More than 26,000 of BD5’s eligible voters — about 7 percent — cast ballots for the school board primary in March 2015, according to data provided by Goodwin. In an effort to boost future turnout, voters in 2015 approved changing local elections — including for mayor, city council and school board — to June and November of even-numbered years to align them with federal and state election dates.
Compared to the four school board primaries on the ballot in March 2015, Tuesday’s BD5 election is the standalone board race. There are some municipal elections as well, including in Manhattan Beach and Hidden Hills. See the list of elections here.
Q: How does the last BD5 race in 2015 compare to this one?
Apart from the fact that this year is a special election …
1. There’s a larger candidate pool.
There were three candidates —Rodríguez, Bennett Kayser and Andrew Thomas — in the March 2015 primary. Rodríguez was the only Latino candidate then, compared to the seven Latino candidates who are in the race currently.
Sonenshein: “There’s a lot of candidates [this time]. On the one hand, each of them brings out their base of supporters. But on the other hand, until there’s a runoff [election], it’s kind of hard to grab everybody’s attention.”
He added: “Even though the northeast part of the district has a larger number of voters than the southeast, [Rodríguez] did well enough in the southeast in enough precincts to actually win with the support of voters from the southeast.”
Southern BD5 is more impoverished, with almost entirely Latino student enrollment. It historically has lower voter turnout than the northern, more affluent and typically more pro-union part of the board district, Regalado confirmed. But “that doesn’t mean the southern section is not pro-union as well,” he noted in a follow-up email to LA School Report.
A runoff election is slated for May 14 if no one wins more than 50 percent of the primary vote. Whoever wins will hold the seat through December 2020 — the remainder of Rodríguez’s term.
A demographic breakdown of who voted in the primary could take as long as a month to six weeks to become available, though a runoff election might “speed up this process a bit,” Callan wrote. Preliminary absentee ballot data shared with LA School Report on Monday showed Latino residents — who make up about 57 percent of the board district’s voters — at similar turnout levels to white residents. Each group had cast about 6,000 votes.
“If there is an outright winner on Tuesday,” Callan wrote, “we will have no incentive to go in and quickly retrieve” that breakdown data.
2. There was more outward support from the charter & reform community.
Sonenshein: Rodríguez, an education reformer, “had considerable support from communities on his side of the school board debate. 2015 was a good year for the charter school reformers. And there were [financial] resources. This year of course it’s different, because a lot of resources are probably being held back for the runoff.”
Goodwin: “In the upcoming election, because there is no candidate who is receiving funds from the education reform world, or at least from [the California Charter Schools Association Advocates], there is not this kind of dynamic — not at least in the primary — that we had in the past. So this race is going to be, for now, most likely a race for who finishes second behind [United Teachers Los Angeles’s] candidate, Jackie Goldberg, because she has residual [name recognition].”
CCSAA didn’t endorse a candidate for this primary. It spent the most of any backer — nearly $600,000 — in the 2015 March primaries.
UTLA and SEIU Local 99 have given hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures so far this election season to Goldberg and Repenning, respectively. UTLA represents teachers and support service personnel such as counselors. SEIU Local 99 represents education workers including cafeteria staff, bus drivers and teachers aides.
3. The battle to seat a pro-union or pro-reform candidate continues.
Regalado: “The stakes are very high in this [election]. This may well decide which side — pro-charter or anti-charter majority — the school board may reflect. … The way the momentum has shifted in the past year or so, it’d be hard to see that it’s going to be a pro-charter vote. But we’ll see. Stranger things have happened.”
The board currently seesaws between reform- and union-leaning agendas. Goldberg has hinged her candidacy on ensuring charter proponents are in the minority. Other candidates, such as professor Ana Cubas and county arts commissioner David Valdez, expressed support for enhanced charter school accountability at a recent parent forum.
Q: How could January’s teacher strike impact this election?
Regalado: The election “is coming right on the heels of not a long, but a long fought-out battle that resulted in a strike in which the community was involved. That would perhaps turn this into a bit more exciting a race. Maybe you get additional people who normally wouldn’t vote in a school board race out to vote because it comes on the tail of a very, very impressive strike that galvanized community resources.”
Sonenshein: “I’m skeptical [on the strike’s impact] only because there are so many issues out there right now. The political system is kind of in turmoil … nationally, statewide, locally. So certain things that seem that they’re the biggest thing right at this moment fade.”
Q: What if this goes to a runoff? Would that improve turnout?
Goodwin: “It depends on who the candidates are. If you have a Latino candidate who makes the runoff, there might be a push for Latinos to turn out. If you have this interesting sort of inter-union battle between Heather and Jackie, where there’s unlikely to be any substantive difference between them … then you might have very, very low Latino turnout — maybe made up for by slightly higher turnout in the northern part of the district.”
Sonenshein: “It partly depends on who gets into a runoff. Whether there’s major resources on either side. And [we] don’t have a clue who’s going to make the runoff, although we assume there will be a runoff because how on earth can somebody get 50 percent in this?”
Regalado: “Not everybody will get a chance to vote in both [a primary and a runoff], perhaps because of work or babysitting requirements. … Generally, runoffs carry more glamour” — and therefore, greater turnout — “because the final decision will be made then.”
A similar number of votes were cast in both the primary and runoff BD5 elections in 2015, according to data provided by Goodwin.
Q: What strategies can increase voter turnout?
Regalado: More time and resources. “There really hasn’t been a whole lot of time to vet the candidates, much less to really get to know them well or know their positions well” and differentiate them.
Goodwin: “You need a strong candidate. You need someone who’s talking about issues that affect both parents and the community in the southern part of the district and have the funding to get their message out. And, of course, it requires a turnout operation. You need to reach voters, you need to convince them that you are better than the other candidates.”
Sonenshein: “The dynamics that we’re talking about [with] a special election wouldn’t change that much if it had another month. Because what really matters is: are organized groups beating down the doors to get people to vote? Are there a lot of resources being devoted to that?”
He added: “One great way for people to be involved is to hold the debates that are being held. We helped organize one with the YMCA that was run by high school students and had a couple hundred people there. … In a low turnout election, that may turn out to be a great way to get people involved. You can see the candidates up close and personal and not wait for stuff to come into your mailbox.”
• For more on the election: