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LAUSD Valley seat gets the heat: Early campaign spending in runoff shifts from west side to Valley

Sarah Favot | March 29, 2017

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Imelda Padilla, left, and Kelly Gonez are in the District 6 runoff. (Photos courtesy of campaign sites)

Early campaign spending in the LA Unified school board runoff election has shifted to the open seat in the San Fernando Valley from the west side race, which dominated the primary election.

Three weeks into the May 16 runoff contest, outside groups have spent nearly five times as much on the District 6 race compared to the District 4 race, the latest campaign finance filings with the city Ethics Commission show.

Heading into the March 7 primary, much of the attention and money was directed at the District 4 seat, which includes LA’s west side, a portion of the west San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, where school board President Steve Zimmer faced a challenge from three other candidates.

Two factions — labor groups, and charter school supporters and education reformers — spent about $4 million on the race through their independent expenditure committees, about 70 percent of all the outside money spent on the three school board seats in the primary.

Zimmer’s opponents successfully forced him into a runoff — for the first time in his political career — in which he will compete against Nick Melvoin.

The field in the District 6 race in the east San Fernando Valley has narrowed from a crowded six candidates in the primary to two candidates in the runoff: Kelly Gonez, who like Melvoin, is backed by reformers, and Imelda Padilla, who like Zimmer, is backed by the teachers union. Gonez topped the ticket with 37 percent of the votes in District 6. Padilla received 31 percent.

Since the primary, independent expenditure committees have spent nearly $278,000 on mailers and ads in District 6 and about $64,000 in District 4, as of Wednesday.

Ahead of the primary, spending was focused on District 4 because the school board president was running in a contentious race with multiple candidates, “so you had to break through the noise there,” said Richard Garcia, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association Advocates.

“Now it’s head to head and voters get to hear more directly from the candidates themselves,” he said.

Both school board seats are seen as important for charter school supporters and education reformers. If both reform-backed candidates win, the ideological balance of the school board will shift toward a reform majority.

“The strategy continues to be to invite and excite voters. Now we’re coming up on a third election in less than seven months, to get them engaged in the election because this is a pivotal moment in LAUSD’s history,” Garcia said.

A UTLA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Voter turnout in the city primary election was 21 percent on a ballot that included the mayoral race. There will be just four races on the general election ballot: City Council districts 1 and 7 and the two school board seats. There is some overlap in City Council District 7 and the District 6 school board seat, which might cause voter turnout to be higher in that race. District 6 school board member Monica Ratliff gave up her seat to run for the District 7 City Council seat. She did not make the runoff.

School board member Mónica García won her District 2 seat outright in the primary.

Observers expect that spending will continue through the runoff. This election is likely to be the most expensive school board race ever. Candidates spent about $1 million in the primary, while outside groups poured in nearly $5.7 million. LA Unified is the largest school district in the country with an elected board.

The biggest expense since the primary came from an IE sponsored by the CCSA Advocates, which spent $140,000 on a social media campaign promoting Gonez’s role as an education adviser in the Obama Administration. Gonez is a seventh-grade science teacher at a charter school.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed Gonez and Melvoin on Wednesday. Network for Public Education Action Fund, co-founded by education historian and charter school critic Diane Ravitch, announced its endorsement of Zimmer on Wednesday.

An IE funded by UTLA spent money on mailers promoting Padilla’s work as a community organizer for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy to push for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

There was a blitz of negative ads in the final week of the primary campaign, and some of the negative attacks have continued in the runoff.

Part of UTLA’s spending to support Padilla and Zimmer is also under investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. The FPPC is investigating a complaint about whether a public relations campaign to support the two candidates should be reported as an independent expenditure. It is unknown how much money UTLA’s Issues PAC has spent on that campaign.

Read LA School Report’s full series of coverage at LAUSD Race 2017.

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