A Field Guide To The 2019 Special Election For LAUSD School Board
UPDATED, Mar. 4 — And you thought you were done with consequential elections until 2020.
Not so in Los Angeles, where ten candidates have lined up for a special election for an open seat on the Los Angeles Unified School Board. At stake: control of a pivotal seat on the LAUSD board, which is caught in the middle of an increasingly expensive political proxy war between charter school advocates and teachers unions.
But there are even more elements of intrigue in the race: a clash between new faces and the old guard, divisions along racial and geographic lines — and even the remnants of a scandal.
Here's what you need to know:
I.) THE BASICS
ANOTHER ELECTION ALREADY? WHY NOW?
The last board member to hold this seat, Ref Rodriguez, resigned last July after pleading guilty to felony campaign finance charges. By the time Rodriguez stepped down, it was too late to add an election for the open seat to the November 2018 ballot — and the remaining six board members could not agree on a temporary replacement.
So the board left the seat vacant, voting only to call a special election to serve out the remaining time on Rodriguez's term, which expires in December 2020.
WHEN IS THE ELECTION?
The election date is March 5, 2019. If no one finishes with more than 50 percent of the vote — which is likely, given the high number of declared candidates — the city will hold a runoff election between the top two finishers on May 14, 2019.
That means by the time the new board member is seated, he or she may have only a year-and-a-half to serve.
CAN I VOTE IN THIS ELECTION?
LAUSD board members each represent a geographic area. This seat represents Board District 5, which includes parts of both northeast L.A. and also the small cities southeast of downtown.
If that geography sounds weird, it looks even weirder on a map, thanks to the peculiar art of determining district boundaries (more on that below). And it shapes the race. Two-thirds of the students in Board District 5 attend schools in the heavily Latino southeast cities, like Huntington Park, Maywood and Bell. But the northern half is where most of the voters in BD5 elections live; turnout has historically been highest in the affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods of Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, Highland Park or Los Feliz.
WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THIS ELECTION?
LAUSD is the nation's largest school district overseen by an elected school board. That means the buck stops with board members; they are ultimately responsible for whether more than 601,000 students in L.A. are learning.
But the LAUSD board is also caught in the middle of a power struggle between two groups with sharply contrasted views of how to run schools — and both have lots of cash to spend on elections.
On one side: teachers unions, like United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), who see charter schools as part of an existential threat to school districts. On the other: the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and other self-styled "education reform" groups like EdVoice, who position themselves as a counterweight to the long-dominant unions.
In 2017, outside groups — mostly the teachers union and the charter association — combined to spend a record $15 million on LAUSD elections.
To learn more about the charter school debate that's played out in state and local politics recently, have a look at this piece.
Both the CCSA and UTLA have something to prove in this special election. For the teachers union, it's a chance to rebuild after a disastrous 2017 campaign, during which CCSA-endorsed candidates — including Ref Rodriguez — secured a solid four-member majority on the board. (A swing vote from another board member, Richard Vladovic, who has earned both the CCSA and UTLA endorsements in the past, occasionally gave pro-charter groups a five-vote majority.)
CCSA and their allies are also regrouping after a rough go in statewide elections in 2018. Pro-charter groups placed heavy bets on the candidacies of Antonio Villaraigosa for governor and of Marshall Tuck for state Superintendent of Public Instruction — and both lost.
"It's a little like the War of the Roses," said political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who runs the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. If these "education wars" interest you, he said this LAUSD race may hold nearly as much intrigue as the hotly contested race for state schools superintendent — also a charter-versus-union clash.
"The forces are very evenly divided," added Sonenshein. "It's clearly a fair fight in L.A."
WHO'S ON THE BALLOT?
Ten — count 'em, 10! — candidates qualified for the ballot, gathering at least the minimum 500 petition signatures required to appear on the March ballot.
Here's a look at the crowded field. Grab a chair. This could take a minute:
- Jackie Goldberg: Goldberg, 73, is a legend in local politics. Before she became the first openly lesbian member of the L.A. City Council, Goldberg was elected to the BD5 seat for two terms from 1983 to 1991. This summer, the longtime Silver Lake resident lobbied the current LAUSD board to name her as interim replacement for Ref Rodriguez, promising not to run a full term if appointed — but board members passed. A sharp critic of charter schools and of the decision to hire LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, Goldberg was the "overwhelming" choice of UTLA members for the teachers union's endorsement. If elected, Goldberg has said she will only serve until Dec. 2020, when Rodriguez's original term was set to expire. Her decision to enter the race this year has already prompted at least two candidates to bow out: Bell Mayor Fidencio Gallardo and Bennett Kayser, who held the BD5 seat until losing to Rodriguez in 2015.
- Heather Repenning: Repenning was, until recently, a member of the L.A. Board of Public Works and a longtime aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti. She launched her campaign boasting not only Garcetti's endorsement, but the support of several trade unions. Among them: the Service Employees International Union, which represents some non-teaching employees in LAUSD. SEIU Local 99 has historically been the third-largest outside contributor to school board elections. Repenning had been angling for the even-more-lucrative endorsement of LAUSD's teachers union, UTLA; she has promised to reject the support of its political rival, the California Charter Schools Association. Repenning's young daughter attends elementary school in Silver Lake.
- Allison Bajracharya: While Repenning and Goldberg have sworn off the support of pro-charter school groups, others appear open to it — and Bajracharya may be a natural fit for the endorsement. A former teacher in New Orleans, Bajracharya — who now lives in Los Feliz — used to work for the California Charter Schools Association, and is now a top executive at the Camino Nuevo network of charter schools. (FWIW: The teaching force at Camino Nuevo, unlike at most charters, is unionized.) In an interview with the charter-friendly advocacy organization Speak Up, Bajracharya bemoaned the Trump Administration's embrace of charter schools: "They've really convoluted what the concept of charter schools are, especially charter schools in L.A."
- Graciela Ortiz: As a counselor at Marquez High School in Huntington Park, Ortiz is a member of UTLA, and has even been involved in setting the union's political agenda. The Huntington Park City Councilwoman might seem a strange fit for the CCSA endorsement, but at a recent public appearance, Ortiz didn't slam the door on accepting support from pro-charter groups if they offered it. "We have to remember it's about kids," Ortiz said in a measured statement at an East Area Progressive Democrats' meeting. "In the southeast, we have a lot of charter schools there. It's about accountability."
- Ana Cubas: "At this point, I am an independent candidate," the City Terrace resident said at the East Area Progressive Democrats meeting — though Cubas did not rule out charter support either. Cubas ran for L.A. City Council in 2013, losing a close race to Curren Price, and was also once chief of staff to councilman Jose Huizar (who's currently under FBI scrutiny, though Cubas told the advocacy group Speak Up she hasn't worked for Huizar in seven years). Cubas was also once the deputy director of the Youth Policy Institute, a huge organization that runs a huge array of services — as well as several charter schools — aimed at helping low-income children.
- Nestor Enrique Valencia: "No millionaires have approached me for this race, and I doubt I'm going to get any support," the Bell City Councilman told the East Area Progressive Democrats — though he adds he is for a moratorium on charter schools. Valencia is seeking financial backers, "but I'm very careful what money I take," he said, noting he ran to replace city council members widely held responsible for a multi-million dollar municipal corruption scandal in Bell.
- Cynthia Gonzalez: The principal of a high school at the Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South L.A., Gonzalez said she supports charter schools as they were originally pitched — as incubators of innovation and new teaching strategies. She'd like to think she could earn CCSA's endorsement, but also believes charters have strayed from their original mission — and supports a moratorium on their further growth. (Gonzalez told the East Area Progressive Democrats that, after reading over her application for CCSA's endorsement, a friend asked her: "Are you trying to get rejected?") This week, Gonzalez said she was withdrawing from CCSA's endorsement process altogether: "Those driving [CCSA's] political agenda have now become a divisive force in our communities." Gonzalez, who lives in Cudahy and has two daughters in nearby LAUSD schools, is pitching herself as the only school administrator running.
- Rocio Rivas: Rivas was active in organizing protests urging Rodriguez to resign after criminal charges against him were first announced. That experience inspired the Highland Park parent to run. Rivas believes the average parent can't get a fair hearing with the LAUSD board; she says it's advocacy organizations like Speak Up and Parent Revolution that really have board members' ears: "They're listening to all those other astro-turf, nonprofit organizations that say they're there for justice, they say they're there for equality, but they twist those words for their benefit. And I know their tricks."
- Chamba Sánchez: Sánchez, a professor in the L.A. Community College District, says he's running because "students I keep getting from LAUSD — they don't know how to read, they don't know how to write, they don't know how to think critically." Sánchez, of Silver Lake, said he wouldn't accept a charter school endorsement — "I'm a former union organizer, I don't think that would ever happen" — but he told East Area Progressive Democrats that candidates ought to be asked how to improve LAUSD schools so that parents don't send their children to charters.
- David Valdez: Valdez is a graduate of Garfield High School and Yale University who currently serves onthe Silver Lake Neighborhood Council and the L.A. County Arts Commission, through which he says he's working to increase diversity and inclusion in county-wide arts programs. As an official at the Weingart East L.A. YMCA, he launched a digital media program for middle and high school students. Valdez is also a member of the board of director for Jovenes, Inc. — an organization serving homeless young adults in Boyle Heights and Southeast L.A. County — and volunteers with numerous other community organizations.
Several candidates have already pulled out of the race, including former LAUSD teacher Scott Cody and diversity consultant Justine Gonzalez.
NALEO organizer Eduardo Cisneros also withdrew, calling the campaign a "fight I simply cannot win." LAUSD teacher Erika Alvarez, who said she planned to run again in 2020, pulled out and endorsed Jackie Goldberg.
Three more candidates did not submit signatures: Gallardo and Kayser — both of whom also endorsed Goldberg — and LAUSD teacher James O'Gabhann III.
WHO'S RAISED THE MOST MONEY SO FAR?
UPDATED, Mar. 1 — At last check, Repenning's fundraising numbers led the pack — but Bajracharya and Goldberg were having particularly strong fundraising months, and Ortiz, too, is not far behind.
However, those numbers are now almost a month old. Candidates must file reports updating their fundraising totals every few weeks. The latest report only covers the period up to Mar. 1.
II.) WHAT FACTORS WILL SHAPE THE RACE?
As you might have guessed after learning about the candidates, the support of either United Teachers Los Angeles or the California Charter Schools Association is critical in LAUSD elections. The endorsement of either group often carries the implicit promise of millions in outside spending to bolster your campaign (and perhaps pay for negative ads against your opponent, too).
While these groups are limited in the amount they can give directly to a campaign, most of their spending in LAUSD races takes the form of "independent expenditures" — which cannot legally be coordinated with the candidate.
LAUSD politics are not black-and-white; there are few board members or candidates who are entirely "pro-charter" or "pro-union." But UTLA or CCSA can outspend nearly everyone — including the candidates — and usually spend against each other, which often forces the most serious candidates to pick a side.
There are exceptions: historically, the Service Employees International Union has been the third-largest outside spender in recent LAUSD elections. SEIU Local 99 has endorsed candidates on both sides of the charters-versus-UTLA debate. In a race with such a crowded initial field of candidates, that makes SEIU a wild card — with pockets deep enough to make them a difference-maker.
But this year, SEIU hasn't been playing second (or third) fiddle. SEIU has been the biggest outside spender on the race so far, giving a boost to their endorsed candidate, Heather Repenning. SEIU has also spent money to oppose the candidate UTLA endorsed, Jackie Goldberg, as well as Graciela Ortiz.
Meanwhile, UTLA has spent more than $594,000 to support Goldberg. But SEIU has spent more — about $919,000 — to bolster Repenning.
In total, outside groups have spent more than $1.7 million on the BD5 special election so far. But while that's a lot of money for a school board election, it's still nowhere close to the levels of spending by outside groups in the school board elections in 2017.
Part of the reason spending totals haven't approached that record-setting pace: on Dec. 28, CCSA announced they would not endorse a candidate during the primary.
The decision not to endorse also means CCSA is not spending money either to support or oppose any candidates.
That could change, though — CCSA's statement leaves open the possibility they make back a candidate during the May runoff.
Board District 5's wonky map helps explain how the May 2015 runoff between incumbent Bennett Kayser and challenger Ref Rodriguez played out, as the map above shows.
Rodriguez and Kayser both won about 10,000 votes from the portions of board district within the city of Los Angeles — which mostly means the northern half of BD5, where turnout was highest (just under 12 percent).
But in the non-L.A. portions of BD5 — particularly in the city of South Gate — Rodriguez received nearly two votes for every Kayser vote. Even though turnout in these areas was lower (about 6.7 percent), Rodriguez's margins of victory in the south made the difference in the race.
For this reason, it's worth keeping track of where each candidates' base of support is physically located.
This year, six of the 10 declared candidates reside north of downtown and the 10 Freeway. Four of the candidates come from the southern part of the district — and two of them are already elected officials in the southeast cities.
While Rodriguez may have found a lot of support in the southern half of Board District 5, he and Kayser both lived in northeast L.A.
It's a reminder that in many ways, "geography" in BD5 is also a code-word for race.
The vast majority of the students in BD5 are Latino, and the vast majority of the board district's students attend schools in the southeast. By contrast, schools in the northern half of the district are much less racially homogenous, with much larger populations of white and Asian students in particular.
Veteran political consultant Michael Trujillo said the district's boundaries were redrawn in 2002 to include the southeast cities — a move meant to create "the best possible chances for a Latino to win."
But in December, KPCC/LAist reported five Latino candidates are concerned that the three most-crucial endorsements — from UTLA, SEIU and CCSA — could all go to white candidates. (CCSA's endorsement has not yet been announced.)
It wasn't the first time in this year's campaign that race emerged as an issue.
In August, when Jackie Goldberg — who's white — lobbied the board for a temporary appointment to the seat, some public commenters pushed back, suggesting a Latino ought to represent the heavily Latino district.
But there was a divide about whether Goldberg's race was a deal-breaker. "We had a Latino on the seat," Ruth Perez told the board during public comment last August, "and he didn't do anything for anybody. [Ref Rodriguez] won the election with cheating."
Trujillo, who was working for Eduardo Cisneros' campaign, sees it differently.
"It's about representation," he told KPCC/LAist in a recent interview. "It's nice that well-meaning white people want to represent Latinos, but I feel that Latinos can do a nice enough job by themselves."
Dec. 6, 5 p.m.: Updated to reflect the latest official list of candidates to qualify for the ballot.
Dec. 7, 1:25 p.m.: Updated to reflect Eduardo Cisneros' decision to drop out of the race.
Dec. 12, 2:15 p.m.: Updated to reflect the final list of candidates and include additional information in candidate bios.
Dec. 12, 7:15 p.m.: Updated to reflect the UTLA endorsement for Jackie Goldberg.
Dec. 28, 12:30 p.m.: Updated to reflect news of CCSA's decision not to endorse a candidate during the primary.
Feb. 15, 8 p.m.: Updated to reflect the candidate fundraising totals reported through Jan. 19, and the independent expenditure totals reported through Feb. 14.
Mar. 4, 5 p.m.: Updated to reflect the candidate fundraising totals reported through Mar. 1, and the independent expenditure totals reported through Mar. 4.
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