IT’S FITTING THAT THE MARCH 7 election for an open school-board seat is in the neighborhoods surrounding Belmont Learning Complex, a cavernous, half-built high school that sits next to downtown Los Angeles. After all, the school board shuttered ill-fated Belmont — now a ghost campus of textured cinder block and unfinished playing fields — amid warnings that a fault line underneath the campus would produce a devastating earthquake.
An earthquake did indeed hit the district last year, with the election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose campaign promise to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District upended the politics of the seven-member school board and propelled the district’s troubled high-school campuses and mortifying dropout rate to the top of the civic agenda. Villaraigosa’s promise is now sending aftershocks throughout the race for school board, a special election triggered by board member Jose Huizar’s winning a seat on the City Council — with considerable help from the mayor.
With all of the attention on mayoral takeover, you’d think there’d be no election at all. School board? Are they even still around? Weren’t they taken over? Instead, the election looms as Round One in the battle over public education between the mayor and some of his closest friends in the labor movement.
L.A. Unified’s employee unions, which once stood at the helm of Villaraigosa’s electoral offense, have mostly lined up behind the candidates who are the most vocal in opposing the mayor’s takeover bid — union organizer Christopher Arellano and onetime legislative aide Enrique Gasca.
Arellano, a 33-year-old high-school dropout who went on to earn two master’s degrees from USC, walked away with the endorsement of United Teachers Los Angeles — with the rank-and-file rejecting suggestions that they support the mayor’s choice, Monica Gárcía, or no one.
Meanwhile, the local chapter of the California School Employees Association, equally repelled by Villaraigosa’s takeover talk, offered a dual endorsement to Arellano and Gasca for its 7,000 members.
Gasca, who spent three years as an aide to former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, has tried without success to circulate a petition opposing a municipal takeover. He argued that voters who respect Villaraigosa should not assume that the next Los Angeles mayor will be so savvy about public schools.
“What if the next mayor wants to be the pothole queen?” said Gasca, in a veiled reference to Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who backs Gárcía. “What if they want to make transportation or tourism their top priority?”
Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and City Controller Laura Chick — a mayoral ally who shellacked the district for refusing to embrace a municipal audit — are the big guns in the campaign for the 37-year-old Gárcía, Huizar’s former chief of staff. She has branded herself an agent of change, even though she is keeping her views on a proposed mayoral takeover a secret — at least until that pesky election is over.
Gárcía’s reticence has annoyed takeover opponents, who say her position has morphed from opposition to a mayoral coup to one of awkward silence. “There are people who believe in mayoral control and those who don’t. But if you believe in letting them vote, in good conscience, then answer them yes or no,” said UTLA president A.J. Duffy.
Rounding out the field is Ana Fernandez, an Echo Park resident who graduated from Belmont High School in 2000 and has the backing of two school-board veterans — one current, one defeated — who once belonged to former Mayor Richard Riordan’s Coalition for Kids. The coalition was the late-1990s version of mayoral takeover, but petered out after Riordan turned his attentions elsewhere.
Fernandez, like Gárcía, flirted with the idea of resisting a takeover of L.A. Unified, but now has no position as well.
“I don’t want to make this election about mayoral governance,” said Fernandez, a 23-year-old former aide to board member Mike Lansing who now works at the California Charter Schools Association. “It should be about what people are bringing to the table.”
(A fifth would-be candidate, Maria Lou Calanche, abandoned her campaign once she failed to secure the UTLA endorsement, though her name still appears on the ballot. “There was no way I could compete against the mayor’s candidate and the UTLA candidate,” she said.)
The tremors from the pending Villaraigosa–L.A. Unified collision continue to resonate, with the pending departure of Superintendent Roy Romer — once viewed as a hero for his handling of school construction, now appearing leaden as he fends off the mayor’s critique. Romer’s departure, expected by the end of the year, has handed the four candidates yet another Big Question to answer on the campaign trail.
Speculation is already rampant about possible replacements for Romer, with the list of names expanding to include Maria Casillas, a member of Villaraigosa’s 2005 transition team who gave $500 to Gárcía’s campaign. Then there is Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a former school-board member who will be termed out in December, roughly when Romer hopes to walk out the door.
Goldberg — who lives on the same block as Fernandez — threw her backing to Arellano; her brother, lefty-lawyer Art Goldberg, is part of Arellano’s kitchen cabinet, and Art’s son is on the UTLA board.
Who could ignore a takeover duel that pits Villaraigosa against Goldberg, a seasoned politician with her own mastery of the spoken word and deep roots in organized labor.
WHAT THE 133,000 VOTERS in District 2 are left with, oddly, is what they have deserved for years — a highly competitive school-board race featuring a diverse, decently experienced field of candidates with brand identity.
There’s Gárcía, the mayor’s candidate, with four years in the district working at Huizar’s side; Arellano, the teachers’ union activist with a compelling story about his struggle for a diploma; Fernandez, who attended L.A. schools for 12 years and now specializes in charter schools; and Gasca, a small-business owner with a background in policy who lives in Boyle Heights.
District 2 certainly wasn’t blessed with such a rich menu of options in 2001, when Huizar won an open board seat with only a token challenge. But then, school-board races tend not to generate much media attention in Los Angeles, which may help to explain why three incumbent board members faced no opposition at all in 2005 — even amid a mayoral election where public schools were the No. 1 issue.
But with the election 10 days away, the race has been largely ignored by the larger, English-speaking media. To David Abel, chairman of the advocacy group New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, the lack of coverage provides a clear rationale for a mayoral takeover. A news media that breathlessly follows the deeds of a big-city mayor will have no choice but to talk about schools once he gains control of them.
“To not have a serious conversation about the quality, competency and priorities of the candidates who are running for the open seat is a tragedy for the community,” he added.
Since Huizar stepped down from the board on November 8, the Los Angeles Times ran 10 pieces — eight articles and two editorials — dealing with Villaraigosa’s bid for mayoral control. By contrast, as of Wednesday, it had devoted only a single article to the campaign for Huizar’s seat, covering Villaraigosa’s endorsement of Gárcía.
That event, staged outside a newly built primary school in Boyle Heights, felt more like a segment of MTV’s TRL than a press conference, with student supporters of Gárcía shrieking gleefully as Villaraigosa rolled up to the curb with Nuñez, the Assembly speaker. Yet even with the rock-star treatment of the mayor, Villaraigosa’s overarching message was a bit confusing, what with his plan to eliminate school-board elections and all.
Gárcía, peppered with requests for her own view of the takeover issue, said repeatedly that she simply wants to work with the mayor and sees no need to discuss a plan that won’t be released by Villaraigosa until April. Villaraigosa, not shy himself about offering a coy response to a press question, hinted that he just might appoint Gárcía to the school board once he gains control of the district.
Gárcía, whose high-energy speaking style draws comparisons to Councilman Tom LaBonge, bobbed and weaved at her rally as she was asked three more times whether voters should be allowed to directly elect school-board members.
“I’m saying the voters should directly elect me,” she declared. “That’s what I can say before March 7.”
Union activists say that position has recently shifted, a message echoed by the two candidates who oppose a takeover.
“She has said in writing and in public meetings that she’s against a public takeover, but that was before her endorsement” from Villaraigosa, Arellano said. “Now that she has the endorsement, it’s unclear where she stands.”
Although each candidate has shown a commitment to public schools, it’s a wonder that any of them want the job in the first place. From all accounts, the winner will receive $24,000 annually, see their personal life eviscerated and step into four years of political combat — only two, of course, if Villaraigosa scores his mayoral coup at the school district.
Yet the seat is somehow attractive enough that Gasca loaned his campaign $35,000, according to the most recent contribution statements. Fernandez, on the other hand, saw more than two-thirds of her money — $20,000 out of $28,000 reported last month — come from charter schools advocate Frank Baxter, who helped push Villaraigosa last year to sign a pledge promising to limit every campus to no more than 500 students.
Those contributions are small feed compared to the much-feared Last-Minute Money Dump predicted by each side of the mayoral takeover debate. The UTLA has already committed $150,000 to Arellano. Teachers’ union activists fear that philanthropist Eli Broad or former Mayor Richard Riordan will step in with huge sums for the two candidates who are publicly equivocal on mayoral takeover — Fernandez and Gárcía.
Gárcía will likely get a boost next week, with the L.A. County Federation of Labor’s endorsement. Although distracted by the troubles of its departing leader, Martin Ludlow, the County Fed could make a financial and logistical difference in a runoff between the top two candidates.