School Choice & Charters Opinion

Incumbents Falter in L.A. School Board Races

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 04, 2015 3 min read
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Not a happy time for incumbents. In Monday’s post, we pointed toward the possibility of upset elections and runoffs, the challenge to stability and growth posed by this election, and the looming fight between United Teachers Los Angeles and charter school supporters. All of this happened.

The election signals a shift in the political axis from supporters and opponents of deposed superintendent John Deasy to supporters and opponents of charter schools. Most of the big money has followed. Those who supported Deasy and former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are now pouring money into the Parent Teacher Alliance and other organizations, which supported the pro-charter candidates.

According to Howard Blume in the Los Angeles Times, these include Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings ($1.5 million), former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($450,000), Jim Walton of the Wal-Mart family ($250,000), and Eli Broad ($155,000). As we reported on Monday, these contributions may well represent a shift nationally from supporting “corporate reformer” superintendents to beefing up charters to take over most or all of urban school districts. There are over 260 charters in Los Angeles enrolling more than 100,000 students.

Thus, it is no surprise that the election is being read as an ascendance of charter school interests and a direct challenge to UTLA.

In District 5, charter school operator Ref Rodriguez narrowly led incumbent Bennett Kayser, who was heavily supported by UTLA, 38.6% to 35.84%. Andrew Thomas, who was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, finished third with 25.5%.

The Parent Teacher Alliance reported spending nearly $800,000, nearly half of which was spend on negative ads in the Kayser race. The teachers union spent over $500,000 supporting Kayser.

In District 3, Tamar Galatzan, fell well short of a majority with 39.4% of the vote against a field of five challengers. The most prominent of those is Scott Mark Schmerelson, who garnered 20.06% of the votes.

In District 7, board president Richard Valdovic also failed to gain a majority. He received 42.9% of the vote. His dominant challenger was Lydia Gutierrez, who had been a candidate in the state superintendent’s race last year.

The amount spent per vote is stunning, an example of the flow of big money into local elections and its distorting effects on direct democracy. The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission reports a total of $1,591,000 spent in the Kayser-Rodriguez-Thomas race, this for 21,266 votes: $74.81 per vote. This compares to about $20 per vote spend in the Mitt Romney campaign for president in 2012.

Only about 6.8% of the electorate voted citywide. Thus, small groups of motivated voters—charter supporters or union loyalists—can have a big influence. Still, in a low turnout election, conventional wisdom holds that the power of incumbency is large; name recognition alone will often carry the day for an officeholder. It didn’t this time.

City charter ballot measures to move school board and city elections to even numbered years passed easily. The immediate effect of this measure will be to lengthen the terms of those board members elected this term, creating either a stable working majority on the board or longer-standing trench warfare.

The longer-term effects of the ballot measure remain to be tested. Proponents argued that moving the elections to the even-numbered years, when senators, governors, and congressional representatives are elected, will increase the voter turnout and lessen the effect of interest group loyalists.

But for now, we’re off to the showdown race on May 19. While you may only be able to vote once, you can write as many checks as you wish.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.