Those Nasty LAUSD School Board Campaign Ads: What's Fact? What's Opinion?

An array of mailers that have gone out ahead of the March 3 primary election for LAUSD board members. (Kyle Stokes / LAist)

Independent expenditure groups are spending at record-setting levels on next month's Los Angeles Unified School Board primary — which you could've probably guessed from all the ads filling your mailboxes.

And an unusual number of those mailers ask LAUSD voters to vote against a candidate, rather than for one.

So far this year, charter school proponents have spent more than $2 million on negative ads. For an LAUSD race, that number is insane. That's more negative advertising than was purchased in the last three election cycles featuring these same LAUSD board seats ($1.7 million) — and we're not even past the 2020 primary.

Most of that spending has been concentrated in LAUSD Board Districts 3 and 5, where charter advocates are trying to unseat incumbents backed by United Teachers Los Angeles. The teachers union hasn't bought any negative advertising thus far, and generally hasn't kept pace with charter proponents' spending.

Things have gotten nasty, with accusations flying about lying, "race-baiting" and even anti-Semitism in the school board race. So what kind of negative messages are BD3 and BD5 voters hearing? And are they accurate?


BOARD DISTRICT 5

Pro-charter philanthropist Bill Bloomfield has been the single largest spender in this year's LAUSD race, shelling out $2.6 million — including $744,000 for ads like this one, targeting BD5 incumbent Jackie Goldberg:

Bloomfield's ads attempt to sway Latino voters against Goldberg, claiming that during her first stint on the school board — from 1983 to 1991 — she was "more concerned with her political career ... than she was in helping Latino children."

Larry Gonzalez, who served with Goldberg on the LAUSD board from 1983 to 1987, called that claim ridiculous. "I'm offended as a Chicano by what [Bloomfield's] saying about our children," he said.

Let's examine some of the ad's claims about Goldberg, whose district covers areas northeast and southeast of downtown L.A.:

CLAIM: Goldberg 'forced Latino students to attend academically inferior and dangerous schools.'

In 1985, Goldberg voted in favor of a plan to relieve overcrowding at South Gate High School by redrawing the attendance boundaries so that more students would instead attend Jordan High School in Watts.

The dispute was racially fraught: back then, Jordan High was majority black. Most South Gate students were Latino.

But even the 1985 L.A. Times article cited in Bloomfield's ad undermines the notion that Goldberg was redirecting Latino children to "dangerous" schools. At the time, the newspaper reported that "statistics indicate that the Jordan campus actually is safer than South Gate."

Strictly speaking, Bloomfield's ad is correct about one thing: Jordan's test scores were "academically inferior" to South Gate High. At the time, critics of the boundary change wanted LAUSD to improve Jordan before forcing South Gate children to move.

But Gonzalez said the ad also ignores important context.

David Starr Jordan High School, pictured on May 6, 1985 (Courtesy of the L.A. Public Library's Photo Collection / Mike Mullen photo)

At the time, he said LAUSD was desperate to relieve overcrowding at schools like South Gate. Officials instituted a year-round calendar at the high school and bussed students as far away as Chatsworth to relieve the space crunch. Gonzalez thought sending children so far was unnecessary when space was available at Jordan High.

Busing, he recalled, led to "an inferior education for inner-city children — taking these long bus rides, getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning, an hour-and-a-half-ride to the San Fernando Valley ... These children were denied after-school activities. They couldn't stay after school for tutors, baseball or arts."

The funny thing is, Gonzalez says the boundary shift wasn't Goldberg's idea — it was his. In the end, the board's vote on Gonzalez's plan was unanimous.

Also, Gonzalez represented the area at the time, not Goldberg. Board District 5's boundaries were redrawn to include South Gate in 2002.

OTHER CLAIMS IN BLOOMFIELD'S AD:

  • "Goldberg's district was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice after several reports of systemic discrimination against Latino students." The feds did open such an investigation, according to the L.A. Times. The investigation stemmed from 1981 complaints by the Mexican-American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF), which charged that children "have been subjected to a separate and unequal school experience." Some of the allegations in the investigation referenced by the ads — like "that [Latino] students are assigned to severely overcrowded schools" — were clearly based in fact. But Gonzalez objected to the ad's use of the term "Goldberg's district": "The school district in general has done a poor job at educating poor children [over] decades ... That's an institutional problem, not an individual school board member."
  • "Goldberg blamed the high dropout rates among Latino students on a 'cultural' problem, suggesting that Latino families don't value education." Bloomfield's ad is referencing a 1989 L.A. Times story about a "serious dropout problem" in LAUSD's middle schools. The newspaper story noted that many of the district's Latino students are immigrants. "In some countries," the paper quoted Goldberg as saying, "the expectation is that being educated means [finishing] elementary school." How can one assess the truth value of Goldberg's statement? Academic research has found immigrant youth "such as Mexicans" tend to have higher dropout rates than the general population. A Pew Research Center analysis of Census data in 2003 found that immigrant children who only received education in their home countries are far more likely to be dropouts in the U.S. (or never enroll in the first place) than immigrant kids who receive education in American schools.
  • "Goldberg slashed $9.8 billion from K-12 education and public universities." Goldberg served in the California Assembly from 2000 to 2006 — and dealt with multiple years of multi-billion dollar shortfalls. In a statement responding to Bloomfield's ads, Goldberg acknowledged voting for the cuts, but said she had little choice: "All Assembly Democrats had to vote for the budget," because they needed to muster a two-thirds vote to approve any spending package, "or else the state's services — including funds for schools — would be shut down."

In a statement last week, Bloomfield said: "Every single statement in the mail we've supported has been factual and thoroughly researched and fact-checked."

Board District 5 voters have seen ads like this before; ads aimed at turning off Latino voters from school board members. In 2015, the political wing of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) paid for ads saying then-incumbent LAUSD rep Bennett Kayser had "voted to close high-performing schools serving Latino students" — meaning, charter schools. (Kayser is a vocal charter critic.)

The Times' opinion pages criticized the ads. Kayser lost.

Here's what these totals reflect: whenever an outside political group spends money trying to sway an election — on mailers, advertising, or paid outreach like phone banking — they must report it as an "independent expenditure." (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

BOARD DISTRICT 3

The biggest target for negative advertising so far this campaign has been Scott Schmerelson, who represents the West Valley plus Sherman Oaks and Studio City.

CCSA has bought more than $860,000 in negative advertising against Schmerelson, hoping to bolster their favored candidate in the district, Marilyn Koziatek. One ad criticized Schmerelson's personal finances:

The ad illustrates Schmerelson as wearing a gold chain and clutching a wad of bills. Schmerelson, who is Jewish, has objected to the ad as "blatantly anti-Semitic," saying the portrayal plays off anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Let's examine some of the ad's claims about Schmerelson:

CLAIM: Schmerelson held stock in McDonald's, BP, "opiate" supplier Johnson & Johnson, and "Altria, the owner of JUUL"

This claim is accurate. Schmerelson reported his ownership in these stocks on his Form 700 — a standard form where political candidates, elected officeholders and even some unelected officials must disclose information about their personal finances.

According to his Form 700 filed in March 2019, Schmerelson owned:

  • Between $10,001 and $100,000 of stock in the Altria Group, which owns a 35% stake in vaping giant Juul
  • Between $10,001 and $100,000 of stock in tobacco company Philip Morris
  • Between $10,001 and $100,000 of British Petroleum stock
  • Between $10,001 and $100,000 of McDonald's stock
  • Between $10,001 and $100,000 of stock in Johnson & Johnson, a health care giant that was recently ordered by an Oklahoma court to pay a $572 million judgment over its role in the opioid crisis.

In a Facebook live conversation earlier this month, Schmerelson said that he, too, was alarmed to discover he owned the stock.

Schmerelson said his stock broker previously had "free rein to buy and sell whenever he wants." The board member claimed to have since sold both the Philip Morris and JUUL-linked stock — and to have ordered his broker to inform him of any future stock purchases.

FILE - LAUSD board member Scott Schmerelson attends a press conference at Western Ave. Elementary School in South L.A. on June 5, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

CRITIQUES GO BEYOND THE MAILER

Behind this line of attack is an advocacy organization called Speak Up, which opposes Schmerelson's stances on a number of policy issues — including the critical issue of charter schools. (Schmerelson's not a fan.)

Schmerelson's campaign has said the advocacy organization is grasping at straws. But Speak Up says there may be more to the controversy than the mailers suggest.

Speak Up has filed a series of complaints over Schmerelson's financial disclosure forms with California's campaign finance watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

In response to one complaint, the FPPC ruled that Speak Up was correct: Schmerelson technically violated state law by failing to include the exact date when he purchased stock in JUUL's part-owner. But Schmerelson agreed to file an amended form — and the FPPC let him off with a warning.

The FPPC has also dismissed other Speak Up complaints — including a conflict-of-interest claim. Speak Up argued Schmerelson's ownership of McDonald's stock should've disqualified him from voting against a school board resolution to end McDonald's fundraisers in LAUSD schools. (The FPPC reasoned Schmerelson's vote was unlikely to move McDonald's stock price.)

But the FPPC has also opened two new investigations into Schmerelson following Speak Up complaints. Among other things, the FPPC is investigating whether Schmerelson failed to file up-to-date financial disclosures — which are intended to shine a light on possible conflicts of interest.

If the FPPC were to find Schmerelson committed another violation, and if the watchdog were to impose a penalty against him, they'd most likely assess a fine. Campaign finance experts note that these violations rarely turn into criminal cases.

A notable exception: Ref Rodriguez, the LAUSD board member who resigned and pled guilty to criminal campaign finance charges in 2018. He was ordered to pay a fine of $100,000 and took a plea agreement to avoid prison time.

CLAIM: Schmerelson "tripled his pay" and is a "double dipper, taking a generous salary and a fat pension."

Schmerelson did not triple his own pay.

A city-run panel of appointed commissioners sets salary levels for LAUSD board members. In 2017, that committee voted to raise the annual base salary for full-time board members from $45,000 to $125,000.

Schmerelson does receive a pension of more than $120,000 per year, according to the website Transparent California.