Your Field Guide To The LAUSD Election Happening On Tuesday
And you thought you were done with consequential elections until 2020.
Not so in parts of Los Angeles, where a special election will decide who fills an open seat on the L.A. Unified School Board.
In-person polling places will be open across northeast and southeast L.A. on Tuesday, May 14. Vote-by-mail ballots, too, must be postmarked by Tuesday in order to count.
Voters will choose between two candidates for the vacant seat representing LAUSD's Board District 5: former state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and Heather Repenning, a former aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Here's what you need to know:
I.) THE BASICS
WAIT... ANOTHER ELECTION ALREADY? WHY NOW?
The last board member to hold the Board District 5 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 in the spring.
WHEN IS THE ELECTION?
Part of the election has happened already. Ten candidates ran on March 5, 2019, but none of them received more than 50 percent of the vote.
That means the top two finishers — Repenning and Goldberg — advanced to a runoff election on May 14.
CAN I VOTE IN THIS ELECTION?
It depends on your address. 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 later.)
The geography 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 and 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.
It's also a fraught time to be a school board member. LAUSD leaders still have to figure out how to pay for the contract deal with United Teachers Los Angeles that ended their recent strike — all while their regulators sound alarms about the rate at which the school district burns through cash.
And of course, control of this school board seat could be pivotal in the ongoing and expensive political proxy war between charter schools and teachers unions. Both sides spend heavily to influence the outcomes of LAUSD races. (More on that below.)
Charter schools are publicly-funded schools run by non-profit organizations, not school districts — which means school districts compete with charters for funding. Teachers unions see charters — most of which are non-unionized — as an existential threat.
II.) THE CANDIDATES
WHO IS JACKIE GOLDBERG?
Jackie Goldberg is a former high school teacher in the Compton Unified School District and a fixture in L.A. politics.
In 1983, Goldberg won a seat on the L.A. Unified School Board. She served two terms, then worked briefly for county supervisor Gloria Molina. In 1993, Goldberg became the first-ever openly lesbian member of the City Council. She went on to serve three terms in the California Assembly.
After Ref Rodriguez's resignation, the 74-year-old Goldberg offered to serve as his temporary replacement. She lobbied hard for the job, promising not to seek re-election if current LAUSD board members agreed to appoint her. But Goldberg reserved the right to run if board members passed her over — and they did.
Goldberg won 48 percent of the vote in the March 5 primary, just shy of the 50 percent she needed to avoid a runoff.
WHERE DOES JACKIE GOLDBERG STAND?
- On charter schools: Goldberg has the support of teachers unions, and she shares unions' skepticism of charters. Goldberg favors charter schools that offer something kids and parents can't find elsewhere, but she believes most charters in L.A. are either no different from or no better than LAUSD-run schools. Goldberg supports a temporary moratorium on opening new charter schools, but doubts one can pass a polarized state legislature. She also supports giving school districts like LAUSD more powers to deny charter schools the rights to open.
- On Superintendent Austin Beutner's performance: Goldberg was highly critical of the current LAUSD board's choice to hire Beutner and doesn't believe he has done a good job as superintendent. She felt there was no need for United Teachers Los Angeles to strike, and that Beutner "thought he could beat them," but underestimated the solidarity of both UTLA and the public. But the superintendent "hasn't done a terrible job either," Goldberg says, and wouldn't be trying to get rid of him if she's elected.
- On the state of LAUSD's finances: District officials have projected LAUSD is on track for a massive deficit as soon as three years from now. L.A. County Office of Education (LACOE) regulators are so alarmed by the pace of spending that they've threatened to appoint a "fiscal advisor" with the power to veto LAUSD spending decisions. But Goldberg flatly rejects the notion that LAUSD is in fiscal distress — again, mirroring a UTLA position. She says both LAUSD and LACOE are too focused on planning for worst-case scenarios when the district does have money to spend.
- On Goldberg's wish list: Class size reduction. Goldberg feels the district has enough money to immediately spend at least $100 million on class size reduction, which she says buys "about 1,000" new teachers.
WHO IS HEATHER REPENNING?
Heather Repenning and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti go way back.
She worked on Garcetti's first City Council race in 2001. She helped Garcetti win the mayor's office in 2013. All along the way, Repenning worked for Garcetti in various behind-the-scenes roles until 2015, when the mayor appointed her to the L.A. Board of Public Works.
Now, Repenning is hoping to win elected office for the first time, and Garcetti's face is all over Repenning's campaign literature.
The 44-year-old Repenning lives in Los Feliz with her second-grade daughter. If elected, she would be the only parent on the board with a child currently attending an LAUSD school.
Repenning barely squeaked into the runoff election. She received 13 percent of the vote in the March 5 primary, edging out Huntington Park Mayor Graciela Ortiz by just 31 votes for a spot in the general election.
WHERE DOES HEATHER REPENNING STAND?
- On charter schools: One of Repenning's primary takeaways from the UTLA strike was that "charters are not popular." Like Goldberg, Repenning favors changes to state law that would give LAUSD more power to turn down applications to open charter schools. Similar to her opponent, Repenning supports the LAUSD board vote to ask Sacramento to study a charter moratorium or a cap, though she wants to know more details before supporting such a "heavy-handed policy tool." The biggest difference between Repenning and Goldberg is probably stylistic: "I am not running the same type of, I would say, anti-charter campaign as my opponent," Repenning told KPCC/LAist.
- On Superintendent Beutner's performance: In the lead-up to the UTLA strike, Repenning said many of Beutner's messages "fell flat." But Repenning said Beutner passed a major test by reaching a settlement to end the strike. "The strike could have gone on for a lot longer," Repenning said. She noted LAUSD has seen "a lot of turnover in superintendents" — five different people have held the job in the last 10 years — and "so now I would say let's give [Beutner] the chance that he's earned to show us what he can do."
- On the state of LAUSD's finances: On one hand, Repenning says that, during the strike, UTLA can't have been entirely wrong to claim LAUSD had more money to spend on class size reduction and hiring more support staff. On the other hand, she says LAUSD's financial challenges "are real" and warnings from the L.A. County Office of Education "are important." But Repenning also says deficit forecasts can become self-fulfilling prophecies if they prevent the district from spending on necessary goals, like hiring more counselors and reducing class sizes. "I think we fix it, and [then] the resources come," she said.
- On Repenning's wish list: LAUSD's own 'Green New Deal.' Piggybacking off the buzz around Congressional Democrats' proposal to combat climate change, Repenning penned a Medium post calling for retrofitting LAUSD buildings for energy efficiency, reducing food waste, updating the district's bus fleet with natural gas or electric vehicles, replacing asphalt with greenspace and preparing students for jobs in science, technology and engineering fields. (Some of these ideas, such as bus fleet updates, are already in place in LAUSD.)
III.) WHAT FACTORS WILL SHAPE THE RACE?
The most successful candidates in the special election begin raising money steadily as soon as the fundraising window opens; that means Repenning and Goldberg have been raising money in earnest for six months.
But school board candidates face significant barriers to raising money. No individual is allowed to give more than $1,200 to a candidate per election. That's more than city council candidates can raise, but unlike candidates for city office, LAUSD candidates also don't have access to matching funds.
That means another source of spending is critical...
"Independent expenditure groups" — sometimes called "IE" groups, or just "outside spenders" — face no such fundraising limits. You can contribute as much money as you want to an IE group, which can then spend it all on ads, mailers, door-knockers and phone-bankers to support the candidate of its choice.
And who, you might ask, would set up independent expenditure groups for a race like this?
The LAUSD board is caught in the middle of a power struggle between two groups with sharply contrasting views of how to run schools — both with lots of cash to spend on elections.
On one side: teachers unions, like UTLA. On the other: the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and other self-styled "education reform" groups like EdVoice or Students for Education Reform, who position themselves as counterweights to the long-dominant unions.
LAUSD politics are not black-and-white. There are few board members or candidates who are entirely "pro-charter" or "pro-union." In recent history, UTLA or CCSA have shown they can outspend nearly everyone — including the candidates — and usually spend against each other, which often forces the most serious candidates to pick a side. (To learn more about the charter school debate that's played out in state and local politics recently, have a look at this piece.)
This campaign, however, has proven to be an exception.
Early on, UTLA endorsed Jackie Goldberg, a longtime ally to teachers union causes. But on Dec. 28, CCSA — which has outspent all other outside groups in recent elections — announced they would not endorse a candidate, citing the "diversity, strength and depth" of the primary field.
Into that vacuum stepped yet another group: the Service Employees International Union.
SEIU's Local 99, which represents many non-teaching LAUSD employees, has historically been the third-largest outside spender in recent school board elections. They're also a bit of a wild card, having endorsed candidates on both sides of the charter-versus-UTLA debate.
And 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 the candidate they endorsed: Heather Repenning.
SEIU has spent more than $1.3 million to help Repenning's campaign — including on more than $170,000 in negative ads against Goldberg and primary competitor Graciela Ortiz.
Meanwhile, as of April 16, UTLA has spent more than $1.3 million to support Goldberg.
In total, outside groups have spent more than $2.9 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.
(Why did the 2017 race set records? In short: CCSA spent a lot of money. That year, charter school advocates went up against the power of incumbency in hopes of unseating long-time Board District 4 representative Steve Zimmer. They got their wish — but it took an extraordinary $6.1 million in outside spending. They also spent $3.4 million hoping to swing a wide-open race for the Board District 6 seat.)
GEOGRAPHY AND RACE
Another factor that may shape who wins the election? Geography — which, in BD5, can also be a code word for race.
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."
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.
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. In the end, CCSA did not issue an endorsement, SEIU endorsed Repenning, and UTLA endorsed Goldberg.
In an interview with KPCC/LAist, Goldberg said the issue of Latino representation led her to ask board members to appoint her to fill the seat only temporarily. Goldberg said she hoped an appointment would buy time for Latino candidates to develop the name recognition she felt they lacked.
"I went to each board member and I told them that," she added. "I said, 'If you don't do this, you're going to have Latino candidates that are of high quality who can't get elected and that's wrong.'"
In the end, Goldberg said her decision to run came down to charter politics. She was worried none of the Latino candidates could defeat a CCSA-backed candidate, "and I didn't want the seat to go to charter people again."
Repenning, too, said BD5 is a "Latino seat" — or, at least, she says it should be.
"I actually believe that the lines need to be redrawn after the census comes back," Repenning said, "to make it a lot easier for Latinos to be much more competitive. The way the district was drawn 10 years ago doesn't quite do that."
It wasn't the first time in this year's campaign that race emerged as an issue.
Last August, at the meeting where board members considered whether to appoint Goldberg, there was a divide about whether her race was a deal-breaker.
"We had a Latino on the seat," Ruth Perez told the board during public comment, "and he didn't do anything for anybody. [Ref Rodriguez] won the election with cheating."
But Trujillo — who was working for a candidate who dropped out of the race in December — sees it differently.
"It's about representation," he said in an interview in December. "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."
IV.) WHAT'S NEXT
Election Day is May 14. County officials expect to wrap up their ballot count and certify the results by May 24 — though it's possible the outcome could be clear long before then.
Note that the winner will only serve out the remaining year-and-a-half on Rodriguez's term, which expires in December 2020 — and because voters decided to move up the next LAUSD primary election date to March 2020, the winner will have to begin thinking about re-election almost immediately.
May 13, 9:10 a.m.: This article was updated with the latest campaign fundraising and independent expenditure totals.
This article was originally published on April 23.