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LAUSD board elections tomorrow a referendum on the status quo

Michael Janofsky | March 2, 2015

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Candidates at the District 3 debate last night at North Hollywood High. (Credit: United Way)

The fate of three LA Unified board incumbents — and the influence of charter schools and teachers — is on the line tomorrow when voters cast ballots to decide how satisfied they are with the seven-member board that runs the nation’s second-largest school district.

Any candidate winning a majority is in. Without a majority winner, the top two finishers move to a runoff on May 19.

For sure, the current board has navigated through a thicket of controversial issues, including the departure of a superintendent, a troubled plan to deliver 21st century technology to all students, a poorly-performing districtwide student tracking system, a steady rise in the number of charter schools and a teachers union that appears to be heading for a strike.

With all that, three races have drawn nine challengers seeking to shape the future of the district, including the selection of a new superintendent, in what could be a 5 1/2 year term if voters tomorrow approve aligning off-year elections with even-year state and federal elections.

A fourth seat is also on the ballot, but George McKenna who won a District 1 special election last year to complete the term of the late Marguerite LaMotte and has served well in her stead, is running unopposed.

The contested races have played out with a healthy dose of nastiness, especially in the two districts where incumbents may be most vulnerable.

In District 3, which covers the west Valley, Tamar Galatzan is seeking a third term against five challengers, most if not all of whom blame her for all the board’s missteps of the last century or two.

She has been heavily backed by the California Charter Schools Association, which is reason enough for many critics to attack her. But oddly, the charters’ most persistent adversary, UTLA, has not spent a nickel to support any of her challengers — Elizabeth Badger, Scott Schmerelson, Ankur Patel, Filberto Gonzalez or Carl Petersen. Nor has any other group stepped up to help them.

UTLA officials say that could change if Galatzan fails to achieve a majority of votes, forcing her into a runoff. But judging from the background of the challengers and — to-date — the lack of support from the teachers union, it appears that none of the challengers is a natural fit winning UTLA dollars.

Galatzan, herself, is no staunch ally of UTLA, but her return to office would not be so damaging to teachers as a loss by Bennett Kayser in the barely contiguous District 5, and it is here where the real campaign war has been waged with dollars and degradation.

More than twice as much money has been spent by individual donors and political action committees in the District 5 race — almost $1.3 million — than in the other two races combined.

Most of the spending has been aimed at helping and attacking Kayser and Ref Rodriguez, the proxies in a fight between UTLA, which views Kayser as its strongest ally on the board, and Rodriguez, a charter school administrator.

Supporters for each candidate have put out campaign material that the other side has characterized as unsavory or worse. There have even been accusations of fact-bending and lies, if you can believe that.

A third candidate in the race, Andrew Thomas, has engendered none of the vitriol his opponents have but none of the outside support, either. By steering a middle course on many issues, he is hoping to slip through and win the seat.

Victory by either challenger to Kayser, a former teacher, could severely disadvantage UTLA in board votes that affect policies helpful to teachers if the other six seats remain as currently held. Both District 5 challengers would be far less beholden to UTLA than Kayser.

The third incumbent facing challenge is board President Richard Vladovic in District 7, which stretches south from below downtown. But neither of his opponents, Lydia Gutierrez or Euna Anderson, has attacked him with much sting. Like in District 3, Vladovic has been aided by the charters, and UTLA has declined to support any challenger. That, too, could change in a runoff if UTLA perceives Anderson as a possible winner.

Gutierrez, who ran a close third in the last race for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, in unlikely to gain UTLA support. For one thing, she’s a Republican.

Conventional wisdom has little bearing in forecasting how these races turn out. Incumbents generally have an advantage in name recognition, but races for the school board generate little public enthusiasm beyond the most passionate of voters.

Nor do previous LA Unified elections offer much evidence of an engaged electorate. In 2013, the percentage of registered voters who turned out in Board Districts 2, 4 and 6 in the primary was 13.2 percent, 14.5 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively, as measured against voter registration in each district at the time. 

That would suggest, more than anything, that most voters in Los Angeles really don’t care who serves on the school board.

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