It is no secret that the big money in the March 7 Los Angeles city election is going to the three races for the school board. This is the outside money, the "dark money," the "independent expenditures," the donations from third-party groups for or against a particular candidate, funds that are limitless and anonymous so long as they are not in the control of the candidate's campaign.
This year the amount of outside money going to races for the Los Angeles Board of Education is on pace to make the March 7 election the most expensive LAUSD school board election yet. Nowhere near the amount of outside money in the school board contests is going to the other city races — which include the mayor, city controller, city attorney and eight seats on the City Council.
A reported 81 cents of every dollar contributed to the L.A. city election has been spent on supporting or opposing one candidate or another for school board, according to the L.A. City Ethics Commission. Most of it is coming from backers of public charter schools. So far this year, charter backers are outspending labor unions there by a ratio of 2-to-1.
Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan upped the ante by donating $1 million in January to a group called L.A. Students for Change, which opposes the re-election of school board president Steve Zimmer in District 4, covering the Westside and west San Fernando Valley. The group is one of a few connected to the California Charter Schools Association.
The CCSA and its financial backers have spared no expense in targeting Zimmer, who has shown increasing support for more stringent fiscal and operational oversight of charters. As of Feb. 20, more than $1.2 million from charter-backed groups has gone to opposing Zimmer.
In addition, the Parent Teacher Alliance, closely tied to the CCSA, has donated more than $260,000 to support the campaign of Zimmer challenger Nick Melvoin, an attorney and private adviser to charter advocates, and more than $184,000 to support Allison Holdorff Polhill, an attorney and member of the board of trustees of Palisades Charter High School.
Meanwhile, independent expenditures from groups tied to unions representing district employees, most notably United Teachers of L.A., have totaled $705,000 to support Zimmer and another $137,000 to oppose Melvoin and Polhill.
Sixty percent of all outside spending on the school board elections has gone to the District 4 race, according to data from the L.A. Ethics Commission.
In 2015, Melvoin was the policy director and legal counsel to Great Public Schools: Los Angeles, a group working to elect charter-friendly candidates to the school board. He defended the plan for aggressive charter expansion that came to light after a memo from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation was leaked to the press.
Arguing from the premise that the public charter-school sector was outperforming traditional schools, the Broad Foundation projected a plan to enroll half the students in the district in public charters by the year 2023. It estimated that 260 new charter schools could be created (at a price tag of $490 million), enrolling at least 130,000 new students and creating a model of "high-performing charter schools" for other large cities to follow.
Zimmer called it “an outline for a hostile takeover.” Melvoin replied that “a hostile takeover might be precisely what our district needs.” Four months later, Melvoin declared his candidacy for school board.
Also in the District 4 race is Gregory Martayan, 33, who owns a public relations firm and served as a reserve police officer.
LAUSD faces a host of issues related to fiscal management and performance. It is losing students, it faces mounting personnel costs including obligations to retiree health and pension funds, and its latest projections show the threat of budget shortfall starting as early as next year. Critics say that charter schools often cherry-pick 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.
Undaunted, the California Charter School Association announced a “March to a Million” campaign last March to enroll 1 million students statewide in charter schools, almost double the current number, by the year 2022. “Our adversaries can see that our strength is really, really growing," says Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association. "This year we are crossing the 600,000 enrollment barrier, and we have crossed the 10 percent of students in public school threshold. The pipeline for growth seems robust.”
The outcome of the March 7 school board elections will have a direct impact on the manner in which the district will confront its problems — and the candidates with no clear endorsement from either charter school advocates or the unions will face an uphill battle.
In District 2, covering downtown and East Los Angeles, incumbent Monica García is the longest-serving member of the board; she has raised more than $209,000 from a combination of third-party sources, both union and charter. SEIU Local 99 has contributed $122,000 in support of García. The UTLA opposes García, but it is unclear if the teachers union will put up a fight against her. The L.A. Times has endorsed challenger Lisa Alva, an English teacher at Bravo Medical Magnet School, writing of García that "she lacks a record of accomplishment" to merit another term.
Also in the race are parent activist Carl Petersen, who moved to an apartment in Boyle Heights to challenge García after running unsuccessfully in 2015 for a board seat in the western San Fernando Valley; Manuel “Manny” Aldana Jr., a Republican member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council; and Miho Murai, an education and immigration attorney.
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In District 6, covering the eastern San Fernando Valley, six candidates are vying to fill the seat vacated by board member Monica Ratliff. Two of them — Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez and Imelda Padilla — have received nearly $653,000 in outside contributions. Fitzpatrick-Gonez, 28, a science teacher at Crown Preparatory Academy in L.A., worked as an education policy adviser in the Obama administration and is the candidate of the charter supporters, receiving nearly $450,000 in donations from them thus far. Padilla, 29, a former community organizer for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, who serves on the county’s Commission for Women, has received more than $203,000 in union contributions.
The California Charter School Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee has spent more than $64,000 to defeat a third candidate, former state assembly member Patty Lopez.
Also in the race are Gwendolyn R. Posey, a charter parent and school-choice advocate; animal welfare advocate Jose Sandoval; and Araz Parseghian, a parent and bank manager.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Gregory Martayan as a liaison to the Armenian community in his role as a reserve police officer. We regret the error.