LAUSD board incumbents forced to runoffs as voters send message

Steven Whiddon votes during the Los Angeles County primary election on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at Saint Mary of the Angels in Los Feliz.
Steven Whiddon votes during the Los Angeles County primary election on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at Saint Mary of the Angels in Los Feliz.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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In Los Angeles Unified's previous two school board elections, the majority of incumbents had no problems winning re-election outright in their primaries.

That wasn't the case on Tuesday: all three incumbents in the contested races will need to face their strongest challenger in the May 19 general election.

The board election results may well signal dissatisfaction with the powers that be, said Charles Kerchner, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, though, he added, it's too early to know for sure.

"Usually in an off-year [election] like this, the incumbents have a lot of power just through name recognition. That didn't happen," Kerchner said.

The district's had a tumultuous year. The opponents of the incumbents chastised them for problem-plagued technology projects and the sometimes rancorous tenure of former Superintendent John Deasy. 

All or some of it could explain why voters were not yet ready to decide the fate of the sitting board members.  

Sari Rynew, a retired teacher in Studio City, saw her board representative, Tamar Galatzan, as an "instigator" of the iPad program. The board tapped a portion of school bond funds, designated for school upgrades, to provide students with tablets and install WiFi on campuses.

"So much of the money is being diverted to technology when the schools are falling apart. You have to prioritize. You have to put the safety of children first," Rynew said. She said she'll be campaigning for Galatzan's opponent in the runoff, Scott Schmerelson, a retired school administrator. 

Galatzan's supporters turned out at the polls, winning her 39 percent of the vote, about double what Schmerelson received.

Kathy Kantner, an LAUSD parent in Encino, voted for Galatzan, who represents West San Fernando Valley. Kantner said she finds the board member relatable and fiscally responsible.

“When you are a parent looking at your school, especially a valley school, you are pretty happy with what’s going on," Kantner said.

Galatzan was a close ally of Deasy. But, his legacy may be creating a "drag" on her campaign and those of other incumbents, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles.

"It's a shame in a way, because Deasy had a lot of success, but those successes were not highlighted at the end of his tenure," said Sonenshein. 

Deasy and the three incumbents on the board helped stabilize the district's finances after recession-era budget cuts. Summer school classes and many library staff were restored. The board members also oversaw reduced student suspensions and the launch of the breakfast in the classroom program that offers free meals to every student in the district. 

The former superintendent and the board didn't always get along. Board member Bennett Kayser, the Deasy's chief opponent and a teacher union ally, criticized many of the ex-superintendent's initiatives based on an agenda of educational reform. Expanding charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores, programs pushed by monied reform interests, rankled Kayser. He now moves on to a runoff.

"We have held the out-of-state billionaires at bay, and together, we live to fight another day! Our children are counting on us, we must succeed in stopping this attempt to hijack our school district by wealthy interest groups," Kayser said in a statement after Tuesday's election.

Ref Rodriguez, Kayser's challenger and a charter school advocate, said he is offering voters a change. The new board will oversee the education of 650,000 students and will likely select the next district superintendent. 

"What is happening in the district right now just isn't good enough," Rodriguez said. "There are too many kids being left behind, and voters want to see something different."

Board president Richard Vladovic is the third incumbent facing off against a challenger in May. He has defended Deasy and the board's accomplishments and has drawn praise for advocating for better school meals and smaller class sizes.

He will be up against Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher, who said she'll focus on improving educational achievement. 

"I owe the voters the best opportunity for their child to learn," Gutierrez said.