A Field Guide To 2020's Super-Expensive, Bitterly Fought LAUSD School Board Elections

The candidates running in November's L.A. Unified school board races. From left: in Board District 3, Marilyn Koziatek, incumbent Scott Schmerelson; in Board District 7, Patricia Castellanos, Tanya Ortiz Franklin (Campaign photos)

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UPDATED, Oct. 20 — For all the attention city council campaigns traditionally get, the most expensive local elections in Los Angeles this year have actually been the races for school board.

So far, outside political groups have spent more than $14.9 million trying to sway the outcomes of this year's L.A. Unified school board races.

That total sets a new "independent expenditure" record for any LAUSD campaign — and there are still two weeks left until voters decide the two competitive races on Nov. 3.

In LAUSD Board District 3, incumbent Scott Schmerelson is trying to overcome both challenger Marilyn Koziatek and a wave of spending against him by well-funded charter school advocates.

In the District 7 race, Patricia Castellanos and Tanya Ortiz Franklin are both seeking to replace the board's retiring swing vote — and both charter allies and LAUSD's teachers union see a chance to tip the balance of power on the board.

Here's what you need to know:

Los Angeles Unified School Board member Mónica García (center) speaks during a meeting, as colleagues George McKenna (left), Scott Schmerelson (right) and district staff (rear) listen at a meeting in 2017. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

I.) THE BASICS

WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THIS ELECTION?

LAUSD is the largest school district in the U.S. overseen by an elected school board. That means the buck stops with board members. Board members are ultimately responsible for whether nearly 580,000 students in L.A. are learning.

Whether they're doing that job should concern us all, no matter what's going on in the world — but the pandemic has made the stakes of the school board's responsibility really, really, really clear.

WHAT ARE THE POLITICS AT PLAY IN THIS ELECTION?

The outcomes in these two races will be pivotal in the ongoing and expensive political proxy war between charter schools and teachers unions.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools run by non-profit organizations, not school districts — which means district-run schools compete with charters for funding. Teachers unions see charters — most of which are non-unionized — as an existential threat.

Both sides spend a lot of money to influence the outcomes of LAUSD races — though in recent campaigns, charter school advocates have enjoyed a more lopsided financial advantage. Still, United Teachers Los Angeles' political operation is a force to reckon with. (More later on why outside spending is such a big factor.)

By both sides' math, the seven-member LAUSD board is currently split. Charter advocates count three board members as allies. United Teachers Los Angeles has three reliable friends on the board — including Schmerelson.

The seventh board member, Richard Vladovic — the aforementioned "swing vote" — has at times enjoyed the support of both UTLA and pro-charter groups.

Term limits are forcing Vladovic out this year, meaning the election to replace him in Board District 7 could decide which faction holds a majority: charter-endorsed or union-endorsed board members.

CAN I VOTE IN THIS ELECTION?

It depends on your address. LAUSD board members each represent a geographic area.

District 3 covers most of the west San Fernando Valley, plus a few neighborhoods east of the 405 Freeway (Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Valley Village, Valley Glen).

District 7 runs from just south of downtown L.A. through Watts, Carson and Gardena all the way to San Pedro.

To double-check whether one of these races will be on your ballot, check out this handy tool. To make sure you're registered, click here.

II.) THE BD3 CANDIDATES

Marilyn Koziatek is challenging the incumbent in LAUSD Board District 3, representing the West San Fernando Valley. (Courtesy of Mawanda Samuel/Koziatek campaign)

MARILYN KOZIATEK

Read our full candidate interview with Koziatek

LAUSD board member Scott Schmerelson, who's running for re-election in the West San Fernando Valley's District 3. (Courtesy of the Schmerelson campaign)

SCOTT SCHMERELSON

Read our full candidate interview with Schmerelson

  • Brief bio: Schmerelson is a 69-year-old former LAUSD teacher, counselor and principal. The Valley Glen resident worked for four decades in the district until he toppled an incumbent in 2015 to win a seat on the school board.
  • Who's backing him: UTLA has spent almost $1.1 million in hopes of defending Schmerelson's seat, including about $233,000 in negative ads against Koziatek.
  • Here's a summary of his views on several big issues
  • Read more about where he stands on... Supt. Beutner | Distance learning | Reopening campuses | School police | Funding | Charter schools

III.) THE BD7 CANDIDATES

Patricia Castellanos is running to represent South L.A. and San Pedro in the District 7 seat on the L.A. Unified School District's board. (Courtesy of the Castellanos campaign)

PATRICIA CASTELLANOS

Read our full candidate interview with Castellanos

  • Brief bio: Castellanos is the 50-year-old workforce development deputy for County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and a former appointee to the L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners. She also has a long history as an organizer and leader of labor-allied advocacy groups, like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and Reclaim Our Schools L.A. She's the parent of a second-grader at an LAUSD school in Harbor City.
  • Who's backing her: UTLA has endorsed Castellanos and spent $1.2 million in the race, including on $265,000 attacking Ortiz Franklin. SEIU Local 99, which represents many non-teaching LAUSD employees, and the L.A. County Federation of Labor have made supporting Castellanos a focus — together, they've spent roughly $203,000 on her behalf.
  • Here's a summary of her views on several big issues
  • Read more about where she stands on... Supt. Beutner | Distance learning | Reopening campuses | School police | Funding | Charter schools
Tanya Ortiz Franklin is running to represent South L.A. and San Pedro in LAUSD Board District 7. (Courtesy of the Ortiz Franklin campaign)

TANYA ORTIZ FRANKLIN

Read our full candidate interview with Ortiz Franklin

  • Brief bio: Tanya Ortiz Franklin is a 36-year-old administrator at the Partnership for L.A. Schools, an organization that operates 19 schools for LAUSD. A graduate of Narbonne High School, Ortiz Franklin is a former middle school teacher and Teach for America Corps member. She's also a law school graduate, and briefly worked as a special education legal advocate.
  • Who's backing her: CCSA declined to make an endorsement in the District 7 race. However, a handful of wealthy pro-charter school political donors — businessman Bill Bloomfield and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — have spent more than $4.2 million trying to swing the race to Ortiz Franklin. That total includes roughly $1.6 million in anti-Castellanos mail.
  • Here's a summary of her views on several big issues
  • Read more about where she stands on... Supt. Beutner | Distance learning | Reopening campuses | School police | Funding | Charter schools

IV.) WHAT FACTORS WILL SHAPE THE RACE?

FUNDRAISING

So far, candidates have raised a collective total of roughly $1 million — though this figure is a lagging indicator because of the timeline for reporting fundraising totals.

But school board candidates face significant barriers to raising money themselves. No individual is allowed to contribute 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 don't have access to matching funds.

That means another source of spending is critical...

OUTSIDE MONEY

"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.

These outside spenders are behind most of the ads you're seeing in this year's races, not the candidates. The candidates aren't allowed to influence the ads or approve their content. In fact, legally, candidates can't coordinate with IE groups at all.

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: CCSA, and other self-styled "education reform" groups, 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." However, 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.

And increasingly, pro-charter groups have shown they can outspend UTLA.

Take 2017. That year, CCSA went up against the power of incumbency in hopes of unseating Board District 4 representative Steve Zimmer. They succeeded in ousting Zimmer — but it took an extraordinary $6.1 million in outside spending.

Between that sum and the $3.4 million CCSA spent to swing that year's District 6 race, charter school groups outspent UTLA by more than a two-to-one margin — which currently holds the distinction of being the most expensive Los Angeles school board campaign ever.

That record doesn't look like it will last long.

This year, CCSA and major pro-charter donors like Bill Bloomfield and Reed Hastings — the CEO of Netflix — have already spent more than they did in 2017. They're currently outspending UTLA by a nearly four-to-one margin.

Plus, statewide teachers unions' attention seems divided: they've poured huge sums into passing Proposition 15 — which would raise commercial property taxes to benefit schools and local governments across California.

TIMING

For years, LAUSD elections — like all city elections — were held in odd-numbered years in depressingly-low-turnout elections.

But this year marks the first LAUSD board election in recent memory that will appear on the same ballot as a presidential race.

Turnout will almost certainly be higher. The voting population will almost certainly be more racially diverse. Still, in LAUSD's muddled politics, it's not clear who benefits from the change in timing.

You could argue that L.A.'s progressive voters, motivated by hopes of ousting President Trump, would be more inclined to support a union-backed candidate — thus giving UTLA's candidates an edge.

Plus, a long-running tracking poll suggests support for charter schools among Democrats slumped after Trump's election in 2016. During that race, Trump signaled his support for charters — leading to some kvetching among L.A. charter school leaders.

On the other hand, after Trump took office, charter groups did fine in 2017 — sweeping that year's LAUSD board elections.

And you could also argue a more racially diverse electorate is better for a pro-charter candidate: another poll found that while two-thirds of white Democratic voters oppose charters, Black and Hispanic Democrats favor them by a slim margin.

V.) WHAT'S NEXT?

If you haven't registered to vote, you have until Oct. 19. For more on how voting will be different this year, check out our Voter Game Plan — which, by the way, has a ton of resources to help you fill out your ballot.

Then, show up to an L.A. County vote center or get your ballot in the mail by Election Day, Nov. 3.

After the results are in, the new LAUSD board members' terms are scheduled to begin in mid-December.


UPDATES:

Oct. 20, 9:40 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect new independent expenditure totals.

This article was originally published on Oct. 14 at 1:35 p.m.