To say the 2017 Los Angeles election for school board is the most expensive such race in the history of the United States is an understatement: It is the most expensive by more than 50 percent.
As of April 29, total outside spending on the L.A. Unified election stands at $11.3 million — a figure that will only increase when the next report on campaign contributions is released by the L.A. Ethics Commission on May 12.
The previous record for outside donations was $7.4 million, set during the board election of 2013.
Outside expenditures totaling $10.5 million have gone to fund the two races that head to runoff on May 16.
These millions are all being spent for an elected office that pays $45,000 a year.
The spending spree is being driven by familiar foes: charter-school advocates and their well-heeled backers, and unions representing teachers and non-teaching employees in the district. Election observers and insiders say L.A. is a key battleground in the nationwide conflict over how to run a school district.
“You have two factions that have been fighting for control over the school board for years now,” says Dan Schnur, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. “Both sides see these elections as the potentially definitive turning point.”
The May 16 runoff could well determine the district's course on a range of key issues including teacher hirings and firings, seniority, and charter renewals and expansions, regulations and governance, Schnur says.
As previously reported in L.A. Weekly, a pro-reform charter majority is within reach at L.A. Unified in the upcoming runoff. If charter-backed attorney Nicholas Melvoin were to defeat incumbent Board President Steve Zimmer in District 4, and Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez, a science teacher at Crown Preparatory Academy, defeats labor and community organizer Imelda Padilla for the open seat in District 6, the board would have its most staunchly pro-charter majority since 2007-11, according to veteran political consultants who agreed to speak on background.
The current board at LAUSD is hardly anti-charter. It approves most petitions for new charters and renewals of charters every five years. But a slim majority on the board has shown a recent desire to limit charter growth. LAUSD faces the threat of a budget shortfall as early as next year and critics say the proliferation of charters in recent years has exacerbated the problem by cherry-picking 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.
Charter advocates objected strongly to the board's endorsing three bills last month pushed by the teachers union in the California legislature that would tighten restrictions on charters. "These bills are essentially designed to eliminate charter schools," says Richard García, director of election communications for the California Charter Schools Association.
Zimmer, the incumbent board president and union ally, is in a race in which opponents have amassed a war chest of $2.4 million in funds expressly to defeat him. Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan alone pledged $1 million to the effort to defeat Zimmer, a one-time moderate who has more recently stated his desire to limit charter growth. Union groups led by the United Teachers of L.A. have raised $445,000 in outside contributions to oppose Melvoin.
The total amount of outside donations spent on negative campaigning is a telling sign of the high stakes in this year's election. The amount of money spent on negative campaigning is four times higher this year than it was in the previous election cycle in 2015, according to the L.A. City Ethics Commission. Total negative spending in the two runoff elections has mushroomed to $4.1 million. That compares to $1.1 million in the 2015 race and just under $1 million in 2013.
Fifty-eight percent of the negative campaign financing has gone to defeat Steve Zimmer in District 4, which covers the Westside and West San Fernando Valley.
Overall, charter backers have outspent union forces by roughly a third, with large donations coming from wealthy donors like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and former mayor Riordan.
Like the campaign donors, the list of celebrity endorsers is rich and star-studded. Singer John Legend recently endorsed Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez, following Downton Abbey actor Allen Leech (he plays the chauffeur Tom Branson). Zimmer was endorsed by Venice Beach's Tim Robbins, along with actor John Lithgow who cited Zimmer's effort "to bring rigorous, sequential instruction in the arts for all K-12 students in the LAUSD."
Political celebrities have flocked to the campaign with equal enthusiasm.
-Vermont Senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders endorsed Zimmer and Padilla, saying in a statement that "they will fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda to destabilize and undermine public schools."
-Former California Senator Barbara Boxer endorsed Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez, making this the first district election to be endorsed by two senators since 1989, according to LA School Report.
-The current mayor of L.A. and two former mayors have endorsed. Mayor Eric Garcetti was an early endorser of Zimmer, while former mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Riordan endorsed Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez
-Melvoin and Gonez were endorsed by Barack Obama's former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Gonez served as an education adviser to the Obama Administration.
-Zimmer was endorsed by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, author Jonathan Kozol, and professor and traditional public-schools advocate Diane Ravitch.
Ravitch tells the Weekly the L.A. Unified election is “a very important test of whether the public will have any say about the schools which they pay for and where they send their children.”
Record-breaking war chests and even celebrity endorsements are nothing new to L.A. Unified. The record broken this year for campaign spending in a district election was set as recently as 2013.
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L.A. is the last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for members of the school board. In peer districts like Chicago and New York, board members are appointed under systems of mayoral control.
The high-spending this year may be unprecedented, but it is hardly unexpected, says Michael Soneff, a political consultant who managed Ref Rodriguez’s successful $2.3 million bid for the school board in 2015. "Everyone expected it, and both sides prepared for it.”
“This is the biggest district where there can be a political fight and an election that decides who controls the schools,” Soneff says.
Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted a source. Michael Soneff said Los Angeles is the biggest city in the country with an elected school board.