She's Back: Jackie Goldberg Reclaims Seat On LAUSD Board

Jackie Goldberg, a candidate for L.A. Unified School Board, speaks with a volunteer at her campaign's Silver Lake headquarters on Tues., May 14, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

It appears Jackie Goldberg is no longer retired.

The 74-year-old veteran of Los Angeles politics, whose campaign for an open L.A. Unified School Board seat became a rallying point for the district's energized teachers union, took a commanding lead in Tuesday's special election for the open Board District 5 seat.

Goldberg held a 72% to 28% lead over opponent Heather Repenning after the election-night count wrapped just before 11 p.m.

Goldberg now appears poised to reclaim the same LAUSD board seat she held from 1983 to 1991, a two-term stint that helped launch her political career. Goldberg, a former high school teacher, later served on the L.A. City Council, but hasn't held public office since terming out of her California Assembly seat in 2006.

Preliminary numbers results showed stunningly low turnout in the special election. L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan announced that the initial count included ballots from 7.69% of the district's registered voters.

That turnout figure is certain to rise somewhat as mail-in ballots currently in transit arrive. Still, let that sink in: an election to lead a government body with an $8 billion operating budget — more than some states spend on K-12 education — with consequences for 601,000 children, was ignored by the vast majority of eligible voters.

WHY THIS MATTERS

From her campaign's launch, Goldberg locked arms with L.A.'s teachers union, promising to speak forcefully for the priorities of United Teachers Los Angeles months before its January strike. After that walkout generated a swell of public goodwill for teachers union, Goldberg's campaign became a way for UTLA supporters to pick up where the strike left off.

"It was the strike," Goldberg said in a victory speech at her Echo Park election-night party, "of the teachers and the nurses and the counselors [that] woke up the public to what has happened to public education."

If Goldberg's lead holds, she'll inherit the challenge of ensuring LAUSD leaders can stick to the contract deal that ended the strike. Goldberg has insisted LAUSD has the money to pay for the class-size reductions and staffing increases it promised — but district officials and county regulators say the state of LAUSD's $8 billion budget is far more precarious.

Her ultimate aim, though, is to advocate for increased K-12 education funding from Sacramento — another demand striking teachers statewide have made.

"Our goal," Goldberg said in an interview before the polls closed Tuesday, "is to organize this state — with other people, obviously — to say, 'You've got two-thirds of Democrats in the Assembly and state Senate. We didn't have that before. Now it's time to tax the wealth of this very rich state ... and invest in our children again.'"

Goldberg's apparent victory may also put LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner on weaker footing.

Goldberg was deeply critical of the board's decision to hire Beutner. She has said that, if elected, she wouldn't advocate for his removal — and has also touted her skills as a deal-maker and peace-maker.

Still, Goldberg has expressed doubts about the superintendent's plans to reorganize LAUSD's bureaucracy. Beutner has said these plans will ultimately be far less sweeping than they've been portrayed in the L.A. Times and other news outlets. Nevertheless, Goldberg has said she still has concerns.

DEFEAT — FOR A GROUP NOT ON THE BALLOT

Tuesday's apparent result marks a particularly stinging defeat for UTLA's chief rivals: the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and other critics of the teachers union. Only two years ago, pro-charter candidates secured a loose majority on the LAUSD board after landslide victories in the May 2017 elections.

But just four months after those elections, a campaign finance scandal snared CCSA-backed board president Ref Rodriguez. The scandal ultimately forced Rodriguez's resignation in July 2018 and left LAUSD's pro-charter forces politically hamstrung.

In the aftermath of the scandal, CCSA announced last December they'd sit out the race to replace Rodriguez and not endorse a challenger.

That decision was a big deal. LAUSD school board members represent constituencies larger than many U.S. House seats, but campaign finance limits prevent board candidates from raising the sums necessary to realistically reach such large audiences.

But outside spending by "independent expenditure" groups aren't subject to these limits, making their endorsements critical — and historically, CCSA and its allies have been the biggest sources of outside spending on LAUSD elections.

In the absence of an endorsement, some deep-pocketed charter school philanthropists funnelled donations to outside groups supporting Repenning. But it now appears Rodriguez's former seat will soon pass to Goldberg, who immediately becomes the LAUSD board's most colorful and blunt critic of charter schools.

All in all, it's a stunning reversal of political fortunes for CCSA.

Heather Repenning, a candidate for L.A. Unified School Board, campaigns in Los Feliz on Tues., May 14, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

DEFEAT FOR A MAYORAL FAVORITE

Politically, Repenning faced a tough hill to climb in the special election runoff.

Repenning was one of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's longest serving aides and, until recently, a member of the L.A. Board of Public Works.

She showed early promise, entering the race with Garcetti's endorsement and building an early fundraising lead. SEIU Local 99, the union for many non-teaching LAUSD employees, also came through with more than $1 million in independent expenditures — including on negative ads against Goldberg and primary opponent Graciela Ortiz — designed to help Repenning's campaign.

Still, Goldberg won 48 percent of the vote in the March primary, nearly securing the majority she needed to avoid a runoff election — even in a field of 10 candidates. Repenning won 13 percent of the vote, edging out Ortiz for second place by a mere 31 votes.

After the primary, Repenning's campaign fundraising advantage eroded away. UTLA came through with independent expenditures to aid Goldberg — and SEIU's pace of spending on the race slowed. Her endorsement by the L.A. Times was also not enough.

Repenning attempted to rise above the perennial, hot-button debate over the value of charter schools.

"I don't have any regrets," Repenning said during her election night party in Silver Lake. "On the one hand, I didn't want to be the classic charter candidate. On the other hand, I didn't want to be a pro-labor Democrat who was going to scapegoat charter schools and especially charter school parents."

The 44-year-old Los Feliz mother had asked voters to make her the only parent of a current LAUSD student to serve on the LAUSD board.

"On my mind always, every day are parents," she said earlier Tuesday afternoon. "Hearing from them about the challenges and the hopes that they have when it comes to their public schools has been a wonderful, wonderful part of this experience.

"I'm really proud of the campaign that we've run," she added. "I think I've put together a really broad and diverse coalition. I think I surprised a lot of people. I'm running against someone [Goldberg] who's run for office seven times previously. This is my first time doing it. I've given it all that I have."

WHAT'S NEXT

Tuesday's preliminary results are not final.

Mail-in ballots will continue to roll in at the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's office in Norwalk. Any ballot postmarked by Election Day will count if it arrives by Friday.

The clerk's office plans to release another update of results, which also include provisional and other ballots, on Friday afternoon.


UPDATES:

11:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes from election night events.