IT’S FITTING THAT THE MARCH 7 election for an open school-board seat is in the neighborhoods surrounding Belmont Learning Complex, a cavernous, half-built high school that sits next to downtown Los Angeles. After all, the school board shuttered ill-fated Belmont — now a ghost campus of textured cinder block and unfinished playing fields — amid warnings that a fault line underneath the campus would produce a devastating earthquake.
An earthquake did indeed hit the district last year, with the election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose campaign promise to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District upended the politics of the seven-member school board and propelled the district’s troubled high-school campuses and mortifying dropout rate to the top of the civic agenda. Villaraigosa’s promise is now sending aftershocks throughout the race for school board, a special election triggered by board member Jose Huizar’s winning a seat on the City Council — with considerable help from the mayor.
With all of the attention on mayoral takeover, you’d think there’d be no election at all. School board? Are they even still around? Weren’t they taken over? Instead, the election looms as Round One in the battle over public education between the mayor and some of his closest friends in the labor movement.
L.A. Unified’s employee unions, which once stood at the helm of Villaraigosa’s electoral offense, have mostly lined up behind the candidates who are the most vocal in opposing the mayor’s takeover bid — union organizer Christopher Arellano and onetime legislative aide Enrique Gasca.
Arellano, a 33-year-old high-school dropout who went on to earn two master’s degrees from USC, walked away with the endorsement of United Teachers Los Angeles — with the rank-and-file rejecting suggestions that they support the mayor’s choice, Monica Gárcía, or no one.
Meanwhile, the local chapter of the California School Employees Association, equally repelled by Villaraigosa’s takeover talk, offered a dual endorsement to Arellano and Gasca for its 7,000 members.
Gasca, who spent three years as an aide to former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, has tried without success to circulate a petition opposing a municipal takeover. He argued that voters who respect Villaraigosa should not assume that the next Los Angeles mayor will be so savvy about public schools.
“What if the next mayor wants to be the pothole queen?” said Gasca, in a veiled reference to Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who backs Gárcía. “What if they want to make transportation or tourism their top priority?”
Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and City Controller Laura Chick — a mayoral ally who shellacked the district for refusing to embrace a municipal audit — are the big guns in the campaign for the 37-year-old Gárcía, Huizar’s former chief of staff. She has branded herself an agent of change, even though she is keeping her views on a proposed mayoral takeover a secret — at least until that pesky election is over.
Gárcía’s reticence has annoyed takeover opponents, who say her position has morphed from opposition to a mayoral coup to one of awkward silence. “There are people who believe in mayoral control and those who don’t. But if you believe in letting them vote, in good conscience, then answer them yes or no,” said UTLA president A.J. Duffy.
Rounding out the field is Ana Fernandez, an Echo Park resident who graduated from Belmont High School in 2000 and has the backing of two school-board veterans — one current, one defeated — who once belonged to former Mayor Richard Riordan’s Coalition for Kids. The coalition was the late-1990s version of mayoral takeover, but petered out after Riordan turned his attentions elsewhere.
Fernandez, like Gárcía, flirted with the idea of resisting a takeover of L.A. Unified, but now has no position as well.
“I don’t want to make this election about mayoral governance,” said Fernandez, a 23-year-old former aide to board member Mike Lansing who now works at the California Charter Schools Association. “It should be about what people are bringing to the table.”
(A fifth would-be candidate, Maria Lou Calanche, abandoned her campaign once she failed to secure the UTLA endorsement, though her name still appears on the ballot. “There was no way I could compete against the mayor’s candidate and the UTLA candidate,” she said.)
The tremors from the pending Villaraigosa–L.A. Unified collision continue to resonate, with the pending departure of Superintendent Roy Romer — once viewed as a hero for his handling of school construction, now appearing leaden as he fends off the mayor’s critique. Romer’s departure, expected by the end of the year, has handed the four candidates yet another Big Question to answer on the campaign trail.
Speculation is already rampant about possible replacements for Romer, with the list of names expanding to include Maria Casillas, a member of Villaraigosa’s 2005 transition team who gave $500 to Gárcía’s campaign. Then there is Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a former school-board member who will be termed out in December, roughly when Romer hopes to walk out the door.