It wasn't too long ago that the job of LAUSD board member was among the most miserable in America.
Setting aside the fact that each of the seven board members earns less than $50,000 annually, in the last few years they've had to deal with a seemingly endless parade of student abuse scandals and budget cuts. If they weren't feuding with Superintendent John Deasy, they were feuding with the teachers union. Then there was the iPad boondoggle, the Msis computerized attendance screwup and, oh yeah, declining enrollment, thanks to parents moving out of the area — or into charter schools.
But 2015 could be the year that the storm clouds finally part over the nation's second largest school district.
Consider this: The 83-year-old Superintendent Ramon Cortines, a far less divisive figure than Deasy, just renewed his contract for another year. The district and the teachers union just signed a new contract, giving teachers a fat raise (10 percent) and ending months of escalating strike threats. The iPad program is officially dead (although the FBI continues its investigation). And thanks to a ginormous surplus in Sacramento, California schools are poised to get an extra $5.8 billion this school year and next, of which more than $600 million should make its way to L.A. Unified.
Who will get to spend that money?
We'll find out on Tuesday, when L.A. holds its May 19 general election. And by general, we mean you generally won't be voting in it, there being only one City Council race and three competitive school board races.
Each of those LAUSD races features an incumbent that, though semi–well known, must nevertheless overcome the dissatisfaction voters have with the school district. Two of the three races can be categorized as all-too-familiar battles between the teachers union and "school reformers," that well-financed group of ideologues, nonprofits and charter-school operators.
Should the reformers succeed in getting Ref Rodriguez elected and Tamar Galatzan re-elected, the balance of the school board will effectively revert back to their ... well, not quite control; let's say sphere of influence, since they'll only have three seats (the third being Monica Garcia).
Not quite a majority, but the other four board members will at least be willing to hear them out – school board president Dr. Richard Vladovic, who's up for re-relection, George McKenna, Monica Ratliff and Steve Zimmer.
All four could be considered moderates or, perhaps, iconoclasts who are hard to pin down, at least on certain issues. They are all far cries from board member Bennett Kayser, who goes so far as to say we shouldn't have charter schools in Los Angeles anymore.
So the election represents a real opportunity for reformers, who, if all goes their way, will have three solid votes and a very good chance of picking up a fourth swing vote on any given issue.
Teachers union UTLA, meanwhile, could wake up on Wednesday with between zero and two solid votes for its side.
Whichever side does come out on top at the polls will get a big say in how to spend all that sweet, sweet new money from Sacramento. It also will determine how the district moves forward on its non-iPad technology plan, decide how the district evaluates teachers (and how much to rely on test scores) and pick the new superintendent.
UTLA's least favorite board member, perhaps, has been District 3's Tamar Galatzan. The union has parodied her as Tamar Antoinette – "Let them eat iPads!" so the joke goes.
Galatzan, a neighborhood prosecutor for the City Attorney's office and mother of two LAUSD children, is running for her third term and facing stiff competition from Scott Schmerelson.
Schmerelson is a former teacher, former principal and a Republican – the first Republican, in memory, to get UTLA's endorsement. His website has hewed pretty closely to UTLA's set of talking points, littered with phrases such as "schools L.A. students deserve," the platform on which current UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected, and "teachers are the key to a great education."
UTLA is spending more money in this race than it was expected to, possibly because it thinks it has a chance of stealing it.
Galatzan's team feels confident that Democrats, who dominate her district, will go for her, even though party designations don't appear on the ballot.* As the incumbent, Galatzan's the favorite, but teachers union candidates have won a number of upsets in the last four years, so reformers aren't taking anything for granted.
Over on the Eastside's District 5, Bennett Kayser is trying to win a second term.
He is the No. 1 enemy of the charter schools, who are throwing money at Kayser's opponent, Ref Rodriguez. The teachers union is backing Kayser but, strangely, has been more focused on unseating Galatzan. And Rodriguez came in first place during the primary. Could he pull off an upset and unseat Kayser?
The key to District 5 is its shape: a giant backwards C that unites two neighborhoods with little in common: the Los Feliz/Eagle Rock area, and the southeast cities of Vernon, Maywood, Cudahy and Bell. The southeast cities aren't even in the city of L.A., and their mostly Latino voters rarely participate in L.A. elections.
To win, Rodriguez must somehow get these voters to turn up. Not all of them but, say, 10 percent or more.
That's because the voters in Los Feliz, particularly the white ones, do vote. And on Tuesday, they'll also be voting for a new City Council member (either Carolyn Ramsay or David Ryu). And since they're white, and since white voters in Los Angeles typically vote for white candidates, they're likely to vote for Bennett Kayser.
That said, the charter schools have spent a lot of money on Rodriguez, who has a good story. And Kayser hasn't exactly been a fixture in the community – he's refused to participate in a single debate or candidates forum in the general election.
And with Latino population in LAUSD District 5 growing, Latinos are bound to elect one of their own sometime.
A charter-school association poll showed Rodriguez in the lead, but that was before the L.A. Times reported that the charter-school chain Rodriguez founded, PUC Schools, awarded a food-services contract to a high-ranking PUC employee. That's a story that plays on the public's worst fears of charter schools, that they are some sort of back-door corporate takeover of public education.
And then there's LAUSD District 7, which covers San Pedro, the lower part of South L.A. and everything in-between.
That's been represented, since 2007, by Richard Vladovic, an enigmatic, temperamental sort, who despite having offended a number of colleagues and their staff over the years still managed to get elected as president of the school board. That's because Vladovic, for all his boorishness, is a consensus builder, a moderate in a time of big, big battles between the teachers union and the school reformers.
It's telling that Vladovic is the only candidate to win the endorsement of the teachers union and the reformers.
Vladovic's opponent is Lydia Gutierrez, the Republican sparkplug who also ran for state superintendent in 2014. Gutierrez wasn't given much of a shot, but then a poll, paid for by the charter-school association, was leaked to L.A. School Report, giving Gutierrez a three-point lead over Vladovic.
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She's been campaigning tirelessly, while Vladovic notably hasn't — he didn't even bother to show up to the Daily News' endorsement interview (the paper picked him anyway — "without enthusiasm"). The five or six people who pay attention to this sort of thing have started to wonder, could she win?
Eh, probably not. Money still means something in these school board races, and Gutierrez hasn't got any. And Vladovic does.
With voter turnout expected to be exceedingly low, the chance of a surprise outcome in one or more of these races is considerable.
* A previous version of this post stated that Tamar Galatzan lived in Valley Village. She lives next-door, in Valley Glen.