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LAUSD election: high stakes in historically low-turnout contest

Three of four LAUSD school board contests in the March 3 primary election feature challengers to incumbents.
Three of four LAUSD school board contests in the March 3 primary election feature challengers to incumbents.

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Three of seven Los Angeles Unified School District board members are facing challengers on primary election day, March 3, and the stakes are especially high this time.

The next board will select a new superintendent, among Los Angeles' most influential public officials. Board members also must balance a $7.5 billion operating budget and make decisions on iPads in the classroom, testing based on new Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, and declining student populations in traditional classrooms while charter enrollment expands.

It’s an election weighing heavily on the mind of Huntington Park High School teacher April Parker, especially as it impacts the selection of the next superintendent.

“How important is the head to the body? Whatever the tone of the leader is, it trickles down into the schools,” Parker said, toting a briefcase full of essays to grade.

Despite what could be the most pivotal school election in years, turnout of eligible voters in past board balloting has been less than 20 percent, and there are few signs to suggest next month's contest will be any different.

Low turnout numbers tend to give organizations that can get out the vote out-sized influence over the results, the well-financed California Charter School Association and the UTLA representing teachers key among them. 

David Tokosky, a former school board member, said all of the issues facing the school board will play out in the context of which interest group dominates the board. 

“The two parties at play are the self-described as reformers and the unions on the other side,” he said.

The teachers union is pushing for lower class sizes, fewer tests, and job protections for its members. The reformers frequently champion charter school expansion and the firing of teachers deemed ineffective.

Tokofsky said the current board is split between the ideologies. “On some hot issues, they are divided into factions — often with one or two people in the middle swinging back and forth.”

District 1 - South and West Los Angeles

Board member George McKenna is running unopposed. A retired school administrator, McKenna won a special election last year to fill the seat left open by the death of Marguerite LaMotte. With his presumed election next month, he will serve at least five years.

McKenna did not respond to a KPCC survey on his views. He recently asked supporters to help him retire about $35,000 in campaign debt.

District 3 - West San Fernando Valley

Five people are challenging the district's board incumbent, Tamar Galatzan. She is seeking a third term on the board. Galatzan, a deputy city attorney with the neighborhood prosecutor program, was a close ally of former Superintendent John Deasy.

Galatzan has been criticized for her support of his problem-plagued iPad program. After staff emails showed close ties with the program's vendors, Galatzan pushed to extend the amount of time email records would be available to the public. 

Scott Mark Schmerelson, a retired school administrator, won union endorsements from the California School Employees Association and the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, setting him apart from the other candidates: Carl Petersen, Elizabeth Badger Bartels, Filiberto Gonzalez and Ankur Patel.  

District 5 - East Los Angeles

The California Charter School Association is working to unseat the teachers union favorite, Bennett Kayser, a retired teacher from Silver Lake. Kayser believes charter schools drain resources from traditional schools, and he votes down almost every charter school proposal that comes before him. 

The association supports Ref Rodriguez, a charter school administrator and the only Latino candidate in a predominately Latino district. Another serious competitor has emerged, Andrew Thomas, a Silver Lake parent who was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times

District 7 - Los Angeles Harbor

Board President Richard Vladovic, a retired administrator, will be difficult to unseat given his support by many labor and education reform groups.

Last spring, Vladovic was criticized when he ended board member Monica Ratliff's committee investigating the district's iPad purchase. He has also spearheaded initiatives that garnered wide support on the board, such as healthier school lunches.

 Vladovic is being challenged by Lydia A. Gutiérrez, a teacher, who made a failed run for state superintendent last year, and Euna Anderson, an early education principal.