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Low turnout — maybe a record — expected for 3 LAUSD board races

Michael Janofsky | May 18, 2015

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Tamar Galatzan and Scott Schmerelson at District 3 Candidates Forum

Tamar Galatzan and Scott Schmerelson at District 3 Candidates Forum

Hello, out there. Yoooohoooo. Election tomorrow. Anyone paying attention?

Six finalists are competing for three seats on the LA Unified school board, and the biggest question may be not so much as who they are or what do they stand for, but how many people care?

Despite millions of dollars in outside spending and concerted efforts by groups to register voters and build candidate support through telephone banking and door knocking, turnout is expected to be exceedingly light, perhaps in the single digit percentages of registered voters for the school districts in play — 3, 5 and 7.

“I don’t blame voters, I blame the system,” said Fernando J. Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University. “If you sat down and tried to create an election that would have the lowest turnout possible, this is it.”

And why is that? Guerra cited the “weird date,” large gerrymandered districts and non-partisan candidates as creating “the worst of all characteristics for an election.”

Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, took it a dismal step further, saying, “It’s difficult to see a situation where the all-time record for low turnout doesn’t happen.”

Guerra and Schnur also agreed that the scant coverage by the usual means through which Angelinos get their news — television and the LA Times — leaves many voters uniformed about issues or even that an election is scheduled.

While a fix is on the way — voters approved a ballot measure in March that moves these odd-year, orphan elections to even-year dates to coincide with state and Federal races — it only makes tomorrow’s elections even more critical for giving the winners a 5 1/2 year term.

Huge issues await: annual budgets, a new teacher evaluation system, finding a successor to Superintendent Ramon Cortines, 83, who has re-upped for another year. Victory by any of the three challengers would bring new perspectives to a board that generally finds agreement, often grudgingly, but remains sharply conflicted in the eternal debate over charter schools.

It is no surprise, then, that the largest outside spender through the runoff campaigns has been the political action committee affiliated with the California Charter Schools Association. Altogether, it has spent well over $1 million in the runoff campaign to support two incumbents — Tamar Galatzan in District 3 and board President Richard Vladovic in District 7 — and Bennett Kayser’s challenger in District 5, Ref Rodriguez.

LAUSD District 5 Map_thumbKayser, who is seeking a second term, has been the board’s steadiest opponent of independent charters with the rationale that despite any educational benefits they might bring to students, they siphon precious dollars away from traditional public schools.

By the CCSA’s accounting of Kayser’s votes over the last four years, he has opposed new charters and charter renewals 67 percent of the time, with a sharp increase each year, from 45 percent in his first year on the board, to 53 percent, 78 percent and 92 percent during the current academic year.

Rodriguez, who would become the first openly gay member of the board, has served for years as a charter school executive. He agrees that low-performing ones should be closed but that others deserve board support.

Galatzan, first elected to the board in 2007, is facing a former school administrator, Scott Schmerelson, who has won the support of the teachers union, UTLA, another big spender in the three elections. The teachers are also backing Kayser and Vladovic although spending considerably less than the charter schools.

A city prosecutor and the only board member with kids in LA Unified, Galatzan has been a strong supporter of school choice for parents and has fought to maintain adequate resources for schools in her West Valley district even if they have fewer Title 1 students than other districts.

LAUSD District 3 MapShe has has nonetheless drawn criticism for her consistent support of former Superintendent John Deasy, who became the bête noir of the teachers union and anyone else opposed to his aggressive management style and desire for fast-track reforms.

Schmerelson is running on themes of smaller class sizes, funneling more dollars directly into classrooms and tighter oversight of high-dollar projects to avoid the kind of mistakes that plagued the iPads program and student computer tracking system.

While these are issues that resonate with many voters, they might be blunted by more recent events: The district’s new contract with the teachers union establishes class-size caps. The district has cancelled the iPad program, and many of the problems with the data system have been overcome.

Still, fiscal responsibility remains a convenient campaign cudgel to use against board members serving at a time of so many problem-plagued and expensive issues.

LAUSD District 7 map_thumbNeither Schmerelson nor Lydia Gutierrez, Vladovic’s challenger in District 7, has made political party affiliation a campaign issue — they are Republicans — but that hasn’t stopped their opponents from using it against them.

Despite the nonpartisan nature of local elections, pointing out that a candidate could be something other than a Democrat has become an oft-used weapon to remind voters that they should be shocked — shocked! — that a Republican could serve in such an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Gutierrez’s opponents have been especially vocal, citing her conservative views on such social issues as abortion (against), gay marriage (against) and creationism as an alternative theory to evolution (for) — as if they have anything to do with school board issues, well, unless creationism becomes an issue. Groups opposing her have distributed literature calling her a “Tea Party extremist.”

Gutierrez is running on her 25 years of experience as a teacher and a strongly-held view that Vladovic has cost the district far too much in money and reputation for board missteps during his years of service. He was first elected in 2007 and became board president in 2013.

Vladovic has managed to thread the needle through many of the district’s most divisive issues and, thus, won support from both the charter schools and the teachers union.

He’s running on a handful of encouraging developments of recent years including a rising graduation rate, tighter controls over abusive teachers and raising the minimum wage for school support workers.

All three races are expected to be close, which is why turnout is such a critical factor. Guerra, the political science professor, said he knew of no local election in the last 20 years in which a larger number of voters cast ballots in the runoff than in the primary.

That should send shudders down the backs of anyone who cherishes voting rights. Expectations are so low that one civic group is offering a $25,000 prize for a lucky District 5 voter picked at random as a way to entice more people to the polls.

By the city’s final accounting of the March 3 primary, the turnout was 11.8 percent for District 3, in which Galatzan won easily in a field of six; 12.6 percent for District 5, in which Rodriguez beat Kayser and another candidate; and 6.6 percent for District 7, in which Vladovic beat Gutierrez and a third candidate.

For the runoff, Guerra is predicting under 10 percent turnout in 3, 7 percent in 5 and 5 percent in 7.

Looking back to the primary turnout, Schnur said, “By Wednesday morning, those numbers are going to look awfully good.”

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