Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

UPDATE: 2 incumbent LA Unified School Board members keep seats in costly races

Board President Monica Garcia awaits election results with supporters at her Boyle Heights campaign headquarters on Tuesday night.
Board President Monica Garcia awaits election results with supporters at her Boyle Heights campaign headquarters on Tuesday night.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Los Angeles Unified School Board incumbents Steve Zimmer and Monica Garcia kept their seats in a hotly contested election that attracted nearly $6 million, putting it on track to be the most costly school board election in the district’s history. Zimmer won with 52 percent of the vote and Garcia with 56 percent. A third race for district 6 is headed for a runoff.

“Everyone knows that the School Board of Los Angeles is not for sale,” Zimmer told more than 100 cheering supporters Tuesday night at a campaign party at the Next Door Lounge, a 1920s themed speakeasy in Hollywood.

RELATED: LAUSD's John Deasy speaks Wednesday on Take Two about the school board election and future of LA's schools

Zimmer was supported by United Teachers Los Angeles in his battle to fend off a challenge by lawyer and parent Kate Anderson, who was backed by the Coalition for School Reform, a well-heeled political action committee endorsed by outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. More than $1.6 million was spent to elect Anderson – about a third more than the roughly $1.2 million spent on Zimmer, a swing vote who supports both the union’s policies and its nemesis, Supt. John Deasy.

Anderson got 48 percent of the vote in the head-to-head race. She said if the results hold, she just might try again in four years – after she gets some rest.

"Do you have any idea how exhausting these races are?" asked Anderson, the Los Angeles director of Children Now, an advocacy group for early childhood education and health.

Board President Monica Garcia is a two-term incumbent and the board member most strongly supported by outgoing LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"Our team is committed. I have a job until June 30th so we'll keep doing it," Garcia said at a gathering at her Boyle Heights headquarters with her supporters, including charter school leaders. A DJ spun salsa tunes and the crowd erupted when a television report showed Garcia’s numbers had crept past 50 percent of the vote.

In the last four years, Garcia has led policies that allowed nonprofit groups outside the school district to bid for administration of L.A. Unified’s newly built and lowest performing campuses. She advocated for the approval of more charter schools and pushed for a revised teacher evaluation that included student test scores.

The reform group’s third candidate, newcomer Antonio Sanchez is headed to a runoff with 5th grade teacher Monica Ratliff to represent the northern San Fernando Valley, a seat vacated by Nury Martinez to pursue a place on the Los Angeles city council. Sanchez received 43 percent of the vote; Ratliff had received 34 percent.

Spending to elect Sanchez – the only candidate to receive the blessing of both the reform group and labor – was more than 20 times the total spent on his opponents.

The contest for leadership of the country’s second-largest school district pitted labor against the coalition – and drew interest from around the country. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1 million to the coalition and former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee gave the group $250,000.

By election day, more than $5.8 million dollars had poured into the races, $4.8 million of it in the form of independent expenditures made to benefit candidates by outside groups. In this case, the coalition on one side and UTLA, SEIU 99 and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor on the other. The coalition vastly outspent the labor groups.

“Every two years it’s the same thing: ‘there’s no way we can win. They outspend us by millions’ and yet...,” said an exuberant Warren Fletcher, president of UTLA, at Zimmer’s campaign party Tuesday night.

The rift between the two camps rests largely on how to hold teachers accountable for improvement and whether to allow more charter schools to open within the school district.

“The coalition is interested in electing a progressive school board that will support Superintendent Deasy in improving our schools,” Janelle Erickson, the group’s campaign manager, said in earlier interviews.

The conflict played out in the board races because the seven member board of education holds the keys to running the massive school district. L.A. Unified employs 60,000 teachers, administrators and other staff to educate 655,000 students – all on a $6.15 billion dollar annual budget. Board members earn $44,000 a year.

“This campaign has taken such a national flare it has lost its meaning about the students of L.A.,” board member Marguerite LaMotte said Tuesday night. “The money that was sent to Los Angeles – the millions of dollars raised by these mayors and billionaires – will not be put in security in my campus.”

Power to decide how students learn – and which organizations are awarded large service, technology, and construction contracts rests with the board of education. The board also hires and fires the superintendent as the district’s chief executive – and both sides made the race a referendum of Deasy’s policies.

The huge sums money of money spent on the races paid for a lot of phone banking and full color campaign flyers aimed straight at voters' mailboxes. The tone of the campaign literature influenced Mar Vista voter Albert Olson.

“I’m embarrassed by it,” Olson said after casting his ballot in L.A.’s Mar Vista neighborhood. “The literature that’s gone out is really inappropriate.” Olson said fliers attacking Zimmer bulged out his mailbox nearly every other day.

The fact that the school board is politically elected prompted Olson to yank his 10 year-old daughter from the neighborhood public school.

“I think that is the basic problem with the system,” he said. She’s now attending a private school in Santa Monica.

“Giving away schools is not popular with the public,” said former UTLA President John Perez, who remains active on school board elections. He calls the board’s charter-friendly members “privateers.”

The coalition’s fundraising prowess seemed to reflect, at least in part, Villaraigosa’s last push to influence education policy before he steps down as mayor in June.

While the larger protagonists in this school board election drama remained unchanged from previous elections, out of stage right entered a new player: Hollywood.

Studio bosses Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen each donated the $1,000 maximum to Monica Garcia’s political campaign. Katzenberg upped the ante by donating an additional $50,000 to the Coalition for School Reform. Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and actors also ponied up donations large and small.

It was the first time L.A. Unified school board races attracted money from the entertainment industry.

Candidate Isabel Vazquez who was vying to unseat Garcia, is one of several candidates who were furious at their opponents’ war chests.

“Others on the Westside are buying the seat on the Eastside,” said Vazquez, who gathered 10 percent of the vote. “And that’s not OK by me.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized UTLA President John Perez's relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. KPCC regrets the error.