School board elections don't get a lot of attention, in part because the job pays less than $45,000 and sounds like the rough equivalent of student council vice president. But it's the governing body of the second largest school district in the country, responsible for opening and closing schools which educate one in ten children in California. Despite that power, the board remains obscure.
And in contrast to, say, the nearly unanimous voice of the 15-member L.A. City Council, there's actually a deep idealogical divide on the seven-member school board. That means a lot can ride on the outcome of a single race.
That's especially true on March 3, the first school board election after John Deasy resigned as Superintendent. The resulting school board will, eventually, pick his successor (former supe Ray Cortines is doing the job temporarily), and there's quite a bit on the line. Teachers want a raise even as LAUSD student enrollment continues its long drop. And the courts could soon upend the long process for firing ineffective teachers in California. Oh and there's still that whole iPad mess to sort out.
The pivotal race this year is expected to be over the District 5 seat held since 2011 by Bennett Kayser. The affable, soft-spoken Kayser is the number one ally of the teacher's union, UTLA, and was the number one critic of Superintendent Deasy. He's also done more to fight new charter schools in Los Angeles, schools that are politically controversial but highly popular among parents of all social classes.
And so the "school reformers," who want to make it easier to fire teachers and support the proliferation of charter schools (and who loved John Deasy), have taken aim at Kayser, making his defeat their top priority.
That's a tall order. Incumbents to political office are notoriously difficult to weed out in Los Angeles. The small percentage of people who vote based on name recognition. And reformers, though well financed, have lost their last two school board races, against George McKenna and Monica Ratliff (plus the state superintendent race in November).
Yet the L.A. Unified school board remains delicately balanced, dominated by idiosyncratic, independents like Board President Richard Vladovic (also up for reelection, though he should win easily) and Steve Zimmer. Get rid of Kayser, and reformers stand a chance of hiring a Superintendent with a Deasy-esque ideology, if not a Deasy-esqe hothead temperament.
The reformers seem to have found an impressively strong rival to Bennett, in Ref Rodriguez, a 43-year-old son of Mexican immigrants and the founder of Partnership to Uplift Communities, or PUC (pronounced puck.) He opened his first charter school in Eagle Rock and now has a network of 15 in Los Angeles. Unlike some candidates recruited by the reform side to run for the school board, including Alex Johnson and Antonio Sanchez, he's steeped in education experience. Nor is he some political crony.
A third candidate running for the same seat is no slouch either, Andrew Thomas, an educational researcher and co-founder of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, one of the top preschools in the area (known for teaching the children of non-Jewish hipsters all about Shabbat and yamakas).
So it's gonna be interesting to see these three guys in a room together at a debate.
That was supposed to happen tonight, January 28. But last Sunday, the blog LA School Report broke the news that Kayser wouldn't be attending two candidate forums he'd committed to, both sponsored by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.
"Scheduling conflicts," his aide Sarah Bradshaw said.
That's the standard line politicians give when they want to ditch something. When asked what exactly Kayser's scheduling conflicts were, we got radio silence.
Maybe Kayser really did have better things to do, and to be sure, he's still promising to participate in debates on February 5 and February 18.
But why pull out of both United Way forums?
One possible explanation is that United Way isn't exactly neutral. The organization has tentatively aligned itself with the reform movement and charter schools. David Tokofsky, a former school board member and consultant to the LAUSD administrator's union, who backs Kayser, says, "Anybody who thinks the United Way has run even-handed candidate forums should look into buying land in Florida."
A spokesman for United Way, Elmer Roldan, said he's "disappointed" that Kayser dropped out, especially on short notice.
"If he really wanted to engage community members, this should be a priority," he said. The forum will continue without Kayser.
Ref Rodriguez, his rival for the seat, said in a statement:
"It’s disappointing that the public won’t be able to hear from Mr. Kayser, but I’ll be there to talk with the community and outline my plan to transform our school system.”
When told by L.A. Weekly that Kayser was bailing on the debate, the other rival candidate, Andrew Thomas, said: "That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think he thinks that he doesn't come across well in a forum. He has a quiet voice. He doesn’t project himself loudly."
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Thomas avoided mentioning what is rarely mentioned now in news coverage, that Kayser has Parkinson's disease, which causes his hand to tremble at times, and at school board meetings he sometimes struggles to make arguments.
It's a delicate subject among reporters, politicos, and other people who watch the school board. Kayser has a disability, and he's written eloquently about it. He certainly shouldn't be persecuted or marginalized for having an illness.
On the other hand, critics feel that Kayser has generally kept himself far from the public eye, perhaps to avoid scrutiny. Skipping out on debates will only add to that sentiment.
Of course, as the frontrunner, Kayser might simply be following in the footsteps of other incumbents, who almost always enjoy the status of frontrunner – staying above the fray, playing it safe.