A Pro-Charter Majority on the LAUSD School Board Is Within Reach

Clockwise from top left: challenger Nick Melvoin, candidate Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez, candidate Imelda Padilla and incumbent Steve Zimmer
Clockwise from top left: challenger Nick Melvoin, candidate Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez, candidate Imelda Padilla and incumbent Steve Zimmer

It's official: The election for LAUSD school board on Tuesday was the most expensive LAUSD election yet.

Voter turnout was estimated at less than 16 percent, but that apathy did not extend to campaign contributions: Outside spending on the school board races reached $5.4 million, a record high that's partly the result of the city reforming campaign finance rules in 2012. If you were to break the donations down to dollars per vote, $50 was spent for each vote cast in the three races. And despite all that money, there's not even a final resolution; two of the three races are headed for a runoff in May.

Charters and the teachers union tend to operate at cross-purposes. LAUSD has more than 130,000 students enrolled in charters, more than any district in the nation. Most of the charters are non-union and tend to rely on volunteers to perform many tasks that are paid positions in traditional district schools. There are concerns that continued charter growth will both siphon students from district schools and deplete the ranks of union membership; that fear has compelled backers of the teachers union and supporters of the charter schools to enter into the arms race of rampant campaign spending.

In the runoffs, charter supporters will seek to tip the balance of the school board to a pro-charter majority. To do so, they will have to succeed in ousting board president Steve Zimmer and getting Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez into the seat left vacant by board member Monica Ratliff, who ran for City Council. Zimmer, who as school board president has favored more stringent fiscal and operational oversight of charters, has the firm backing of unions representing educators in the district.

Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education at USC, says it is unclear exactly what a pro-charter majority on the board could do. He also says research shows that local charters typically outperform their traditional counterparts but that pro-charter personnel decisions involving district leadership could lead to labor strife.

"I do think that it's very, very clear that the charter advocates want this position," Polikoff says. "So they obviously think they can accomplish a lot if they get it."

A pro-charter majority is within reach now that District 2 incumbent Mónica García, a charter-backed candidate, won with 58 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff. García is a strong proponent of charters, along with Ref Rodríguez, a board member and charter school founder who was not up for re-election. If Zimmer challenger Nick Melvoin takes District 4 and Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez takes the open District 6 seat, that would create a four-member, pro-charter majority that favors rapid charter growth in the nation's second-largest school district.

In District 4, Zimmer won 47 percent of the vote but needed more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff, while Melvoin won 31 percent of the vote. District 4 covers the Westside and West San Fernando Valley.

In District 6, Fitzpatrick-Gonez got 36 percent of the vote and union-backed candidate Imelda Padilla came in second, with 31 percent. Fitzpatrick-Gonez, 28, is a science teacher at Crown Preparatory Academy in L.A. who worked as an education policy adviser in the Obama administration. Padilla, 29, is a former community organizer for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and serves on the county’s Commission for Women.

Even in an election historic in its spending, the race for Zimmer’s seat in District 4 is in a league of its own. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and its financial backers spent nearly $1.6 million opposing the incumbent board president. And the unions, led by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, spent $1.2 million to support him.

The charter backers also spent an additional $815,00 to support two of Zimmer's challengers: Melvoin, an attorney and adviser to charters, and Allison Holdorff Polhill, an attorney and member of the board of trustees of Palisades Charter High School.

LAUSD faces a host of serious problems. It's losing students, it's burdened with mounting personnel costs (including obligations to retiree health and pension funds), and its latest projections show the threat of budget shortfall starting as early as next year. Critics say that charter schools often cherry-pick the highest-achieving students, siphoning off critical tax dollars from traditional public schools and leaving the district with less money to educate the students in the greatest need.

Rusty Hicks, executive secretary treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, calls Zimmer "a strong advocate for public education." The County Federation has donated $105,911 to Zimmer's campaign since Feb. 14. During the same time period, the Parent Teacher Alliance, a group closely tied to the CCSA, has donated $349,918 to elect Melvoin.

Hicks says Zimmer's performance in the primary bodes well for the runoff. "I think 48 percent of the vote supporting him, when there were hundreds of thousands spent in negative advertising and campaigns against him, is a pretty strong position," Hicks says.

Richard Garcia, of the CCSA Advocates independent expenditure group, says voters in the District 4 runoff will have the choice of an incumbent "beholden to the status quo" or a challenger with "a progressive history of advancing students' gains and outcomes."

"We think that anytime we expend resources to have the voices of parents and students heard, then it's well invested," Garcia says. "What we have here is the ability for voters to again look at these two candidates in May and decide which aspect of LAUSD's future they want."


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