School Choice & Charters Opinion

2 Incumbents Ousted in L.A. Board Race Fueled by PAC Money

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 20, 2015 1 min read
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In a race fueled by Political Action Committee money, two incumbent Los Angeles Unified School Board members lost their seats on Tuesday. One-term incumbent Bennett Kayser lost to former charter school operator Ref Rodriguez, who received 54 percent of the vote. Two-term board member Tamar Galatzan was defeated by Scott Schmerelson by a similar margin.

Board President Richard Vladovic, who had some PAC support, survived a challenge by Lydia Gutierrez, who didn’t, winning 56 percent of the vote.

The election exemplified the reach of big money politics into local, low turnout political contests. PAC money totaled more than $4.7-million and dwarfed contributions to the campaigns, where contributions are limited and regulated. The Rodriguez campaign and associated PACS spent more than $2.4 million, or over $107 a vote. (Based on city ethics commission filings last week and preliminary vote totals.) By comparison, the 2012 Romney presidential election campaign spent about $20 per vote. It was considered a wildly expensive exhibit of big money influence.

The race was characterized as a contest between charter school backers and United Teachers Los Angeles. Nominally, they fought expensively to a draw. Kayser, who lost, was heavily supported by UTLA. He was reliable supporter of union-backed positions and an announced foe of charters. Galatzan, who also lost, was generally friendly toward charters. Her opponent, Scott Schmerelson, garnered UTLA support in Tuesday’s runoff election.

Charter schools have been an important part of the reform agenda in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Since 1993, it has authorized more than 250 charters, which enroll over 130,000 students, the largest charter enrollment in the country.

For decades, charters were relatively uncontroversial, but as district enrollment has declined charters are seen more as a threat to district finances than a way to decentralize operations. In the wake of the election, the regulation and authorization of charters is likely to be a pivotal issue.

It’s also clear that the rotten smell of big money will continue to waft from the boardroom of the country’s second largest school district.

(Graphic: Los Angeles City Clerk)

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