School & District Management

Both Sides Claim Win in Costly L.A. School Board Race

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Nora Fleming — March 07, 2013 4 min read
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The nearly $5 million spending duel between labor groups and wealthy education activists that brought national attention to the race for three Los Angeles school board seats ended this week in a sort of draw.

Steve Zimmer, a teacher and one-term incumbent, will return to the board as the District 4 representative after narrowly defeating newcomer Kate Anderson. Her candidacy received the support of more than $1.5 million in independent expenditures bankrolled by a cadre of education activists that included New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Mr. Zimmmer was endorsed by the United Teachers Los Angeles and, while outspent, received substantial financial backing from the UTLA and other labor groups, including $150,000 from the American Federation of Teachers. He received 52 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary, while Ms. Anderson captured 48 percent, according to results from Los Angeles election officials.

Steve Zimmer

But the activists who favored Ms. Anderson prevailed in their efforts to keep board President Mónica García on the governing panel of the 670,000-student Los Angeles Unified district. Ms. García, seeking a third term, has been one of Superintendent John E. Deasy’s strongest supporters, and blocking her re-election had become a priority for the UTLA.

Kate Anderson

Ms. García captured more than 56 percent of the vote in a five-person field for the District 2 seat, enough to avoid a runoff in May.

Meanwhile, in another closely watched California school board race, this one in the 18,650-student Pasadena district, white incumbents prevailed under a new election system that had been designed to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to the board.

Mónica García

Teacher-Focused Agendas

In the Los Angeles race, shoring up support for Mr. Deasy and his agenda for revamping teacher hiring, evaluating, and firing practices was the chief goal of outside advocates such as Mr. Bloomberg and former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, whose StudentsFirst organization, were among those donating to the Coalition for School Reform.

The coalition, a political action committee aligned with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, raised nearly $4 million to spend in support of of Ms. Anderson, Ms. Garcia, and Antonio Sanchez, a candidate for an open seat in District 6. Mr. Sanchez will be back on the ballot in May for a runoff against Monica Ratliff.

Along with Mayor Bloomberg and Ms. Rhee’s Sacramento-based StudentsFirst organization, other big out-of-town contributors to the coalition were media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News. Corp. affiliate News America Inc. kicked in $250,000 a day before the March 5 primary election, and Joel I. Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor, who gave $25,000. Mr. Klein is an executive vice president at News Corp. and heads Amplify, the company’s education division.

The Los Angeles election was a big test for the influence of outside activists, who have increasingly been pouring money into state and local school board races, in part, to weaken the historical influence of teachers’ unions. Both the activists and the union claimed victory this week.

North of the city, Pasadena held its first school board election using seven “trustee areas” rather than at-large elections. Voters there opted to return three incumbents—Kim Kenne, Scott Phelps, and Elizabeth Pomeroy, all of them white—to a board that has always been predominantly white.

But one of the seven newcomers running—out of a total of 10 candidates—will still get a seat on the board. Ruben Hueso, who is Latino, won the most votes in District 3 (which has the highest percentage of Latino voters), but received only 49.9 percent of total votes—just shy of the 50 percent plus one vote he needed to avoid a runoff for a board seat. In April, he will face another newcomer, Tyron Hampton, who is black, and won 36.8 percent of the votes.

According to Kenneth Chawkins, who led the task force that created the new voting-district boundaries, the Pasadena results were not surprising, but still offered cause for hope for minority candidates.

“In addition to electing a newcomer to the board [by next month], we had both Latino and black newcomer candidates this election that were not from the educational establishment, all of whom made significant challenges to incumbents,” Mr. Chawkins said. “This new election dynamic will take a couple cycles to get a healthy mix of candidates, but the system worked as planned, with a more diverse pool of candidates and more local, on-the-ground politics.”

Pasadena’s switch from at-large elections was spurred by the district’s effort to comply with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits localities from using election systems that prevent communities with large minority populations from electing minority candidates of their choice. Pasadena voters approved the new election system last June.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2013 edition of Education Week

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