With Wendy Greuel soon out as controller and just one woman left on the 15-person L.A. City Council, unknown fifth-grade teacher Monica Ratliff suddenly may be the most powerful woman in Los Angeles.
The political class had chattered for weeks over whether Ratliff, who had no cash and no name recognition, presented any threat to Antonio Sanchez, the man picked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to run for a crucial swing seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.
Now, Ratliff is the unexpected winner — and whether voters know it or not, her election may mean trouble for Superintendent John Deasy, the most activist and, in the eyes of many, the most admired school reformer in city history.
"We look forward to working with any elected official who gets to serve on the school board," Deasy says in a well-rehearsed line.
But he's talking, after all, about the bitterly divided LAUSD board, which can fire Deasy — at any time. With the politically untested Ratliff sitting in a swing seat from which she could alter the voting balance of the board, Deasy's fast-paced reform agenda, if not his job, could be in jeopardy.
"There isn't a single indicator that is not at its highest level in history," Deasy brags of the turnaround now buoying Los Angeles schools. "Graduation rates, first-time pass rates, achievement rates, reclassification of English-language learners ... we want to continue to advance that."
Ratliff, a popular teacher, was a member of UTLA's House of Representatives — which has opposed innumerable classroom reforms embraced by parents and the public over the past decade, from charter schools to English-immersion classes.
Ratliff's views on Deasy were unknown until March, when she put civic leaders in a sweat by telling the L.A. School Report website (in an article by this reporter) that she favored firing Deasy — because no search was conducted in 2010 when he was hired for the No. 2 post before his current job.
Her comment badly rattled L.A.'s economic stewards and civil rights groups, many of whom slam UTLA as an apologist for bad teachers. These groups generally agree that Deasy is to the schools what reformer police chief William Bratton was to the Los Angeles Police Department.
The favorite for the swing seat on May 21 had been Antonio Sanchez, 31, an affable political insider backed by the Coalition for School Reform, a PAC organized by Villaraigosa, fueled by big money from business leaders, nonprofits and charter school groups. The coalition was laser-focused on protecting Deasy, the headstrong chief who has dragged the bureaucracy and teachers, often kicking and screaming, into an era of dramatic reform, including far speedier firings of teachers for sex abuse — or for just plain incompetence.
But Ratliff was far more knowledgeable about education than Sanchez was. The L.A. Times editorial board endorsed her. Then, when the editorial board heard of Ratliff's anti-Deasy comments to L.A. School Report, it called her in for a second interview. Ratliff promised the Times she wouldn't vote to fire Deasy — at least for now.
Even if LAUSD's board retains Deasy, which seems likely over the short term, the seven-member elected body, to which few L.A. residents pay attention, could gum up Deasy's embrace of ambitious reforms based on quantifiable student academic improvements — an emphasis hated by the teachers union.
Many education reformers — who supported Sanchez, if wanly — bemoan Ratliff's election and place the blame for the possible political shift at the school board squarely on the outgoing mayor, who loved being a political kingmaker but chose a lot of duds.
Villaraigosa picked Sanchez, his former body man, and backed him with $1.4 million in super-PAC money. Ratliff raised $50,000.
Sanchez had no background in education, while Ratliff was backed by excited ground troops — UTLA teacher activists.
"This isn't about education reform," Gloria Romero, president of California Democrats for Education Reform, says of Villaraigosa's insistence on Sanchez. "This is about ego. It's more of an education eulogy than an education legacy."
In fact, the mayor struck out repeatedly this year. The Coalition for School Reform spent more than $4 million — all raised by Villaraigosa — to elect or keep in power pro-reformers in three LAUSD board seats. All but one effort failed — the re-election of school board president Monica Garcia.
Recriminations have been flying. "I just think we had the wrong people running our campaign," says former mayor Richard Riordan, an ardent reformer who wrested political control of the school board away from UTLA in 1999, and gave $50,000 to the coalition this election season.
The coalition campaign was run by veterans Ace Smith and Sean Clegg of SCN, who also helmed the disastrous DWP union PAC that helped fell mayoral candidate Greuel when voters decided that the hated DWP was trying to buy the mayor's race.
Riordan says both campaigns got one thing wrong: "One of the key things in politics is, you run a race so that the public likes you — not so you're the most brilliant person in the world."
Multiple sources say Smith's and Clegg's hands were tied by the wealthy but wildly naive Coalition for School Reform PAC donors, who didn't want to "go negative" — a laudable but difficult way to win an election. The coalition brain trust believed its inaccurate internal polls, which had Sanchez up by roughly 25 points.
The coalition hobbled itself. It failed to alert voters that Ratliff had spoken of firing Deasy, and even failed to get out word that Ratliff opposed SB 1530, a bill that would allow school districts to more easily fire teachers for committing physical abuse, sexual abuse or drug-related acts upon their students. (SB 1530 was killed after intense opposition from teachers unions.)
Like Riordan, Villaraigosa had notable school-reform successes, such as the 2007 election of LAUSD board members Tamar Galatzan and Yolie Flores, both committed reformers. But like Riordan in 2003, the year that UTLA won back many board seats that Riordan's reform candidates had won four years earlier, Villaraigosa's 2013 has been an epic fail.
"It was clear from the beginning this guy wasn't ready for primetime," Romero says of Sanchez. "He was a political hack."
Sanchez did his best to muster enthusiasm for education issues but often came off as vague or politically naive.
"Certainly he wasn't the best choice [the coalition] could have made," Fred Huebescher, Ratliff's political consultant, says.
The coalition could have backed Iris Zuniga, the respected chief operating officer of Youth Policy Institute charter schools, who filed papers to run. "It was clear that Iris had a constituency that was real," says a pro–school reform political consultant.
But coalition donors deferred to Villaraigosa, partly because Sanchez was the mayor's boy and partly because SEIU Local 99 — whose members hold such LAUSD jobs as cafeteria worker and custodian — gave Sanchez its blessing.
What did all this have to do with fixing crappy schools? Well, nothing. The important Board of Education election ground down to an insider's chess game.
Ratliff had been dismissed by L.A.'s yakking classes because she had so little cash and little time to campaign. She spent her days on something apparently important to the few voters who did turn out: teaching at highly rated San Pedro Elementary School in one of L.A.'s poorest areas.
Though UTLA union leaders remained neutral during the race, a small cadre of UTLA activists became enthralled with Ratliff and rallied to her, knocking on doors and incessantly posting on Facebook. Brent Smiley, a teacher and activist, says their enthusiasm "made all the difference when we were knocking on doors and engaging with voters."
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While the Coalition for School Reform spent millions with an eye to protecting change agent Deasy, Ratliff made simple but relatively inexpensive moves.
She spent most of her modest cash on ruler-shaped magnets imprinted "Mónica Ratliff." "The goal was to make sure Latinos knew she was Latina," Huebescher says.
Ratliff's views are independent and can be surprising. She has praised Deasy's efforts to make it harder for teachers to get tenure and supports "incentivizing" teachers who work in low-performing schools. But no one seems sure what kind of a school board member she'll be.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.