This Is Now The Most Negative LAUSD Race Ever. Let's Fact-Check Some Of The Ads.

As depicted in negative ads by independent expenditure groups: LAUSD board candidates Patricia Castellanos (top left), Tanya Ortiz Franklin (bottom left), Scott Schmerelson (center) and Marilyn Koziatek (right). (KPCC/LAist illustration of L.A. City Ethics Commission documents)

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This year's Los Angeles Unified School Board races have not only been the most expensive on record — they have also been the most negative.

Outside political groups have now spent more on negative ads in 2020's competitive LAUSD school board races than in any previous school board election cycle. Most of that spending has come from pro-charter school groups.

The biggest target this year has been Scott Schmerelson, an incumbent running against Marilyn Koziatek to keep his west San Fernando Valley seat.

The next-biggest target has been Patricia Castellanos, the teachers union-endorsed candidate running against Tanya Ortiz Franklin in the seat covering South L.A. and the Harbor.

Compared to Schmerelson and Castellanos, only one candidate in recent LAUSD history has seen more opposition spending against him in a single campaign: Steve Zimmer in 2017. Zimmer lost.

Let's take a closer look at some of this year's negative ads:

AGAINST SCHMERELSON

CLAIM: Schmerelson "knowingly invested in Altria — the parent company of Juul and Marlboro."

Schmerelson did hold stock in Altria and tobacco company Philip Morris — though as we wrote in February, he'd dispute the claim that he knowingly purchased these stocks. Schmerelson blamed his stock broker; he has said he sold the stocks.

During the primary campaign, Schmerelson faced formal complaints alleging he did not properly disclose his personal finances — including the purchases of the tobacco stocks — on standard campaign finance forms.

One of those complaints was resolved with a warning; others were dismissed outright. But after yet another complaint, the state's Fair Political Practices Commission announced in August it had fined Schmerelson $400.

CLAIM: Schmerelson "voted to maintain a massive police presence on school campuses," ignoring pleas from "teachers, students and Black Lives Matter." He also voted to "subject students to stop and frisk searches before entering school."

The California Charter Schools Association ordered this ad against LAUSD Board District 3 incumbent Scott Schmerelson. (Screenshot/L.A. City Ethics Commission)

Over the summer, Schmerelson was one of three board members to vote against a $25 million cut to the L.A. School Police Department.

Schmerelson has made no secret of his support for school police. In our candidate interview, the former middle school principal said his experience with school police was at odds with what student activists described: that police presence made them feel unsafe or like criminals.

Schmerelson has also voted to back L.A. School Police priorities before. He opposed the board's decision to end LAUSD's "wanding" policy, which required middle- and high-school administrators to select students at random for a search with a handheld metal detector wand.

The ad's comparison of LAUSD's random searches to a "stop-and-frisk" policy is a little inexact; there are legal differences between the two. Plus: school administrators, not police, conducted LAUSD's searches.

The L.A. School Police Department's officers union has also given financial support to Schmerelson.

As Schmerelson opened a legal defense fund last spring to help him settle those complaints over his reporting of campaign finances. Over the summer, a political action group for the officers union donated $4,500 to the fund.

The candidate the charter association endorsed, Marilyn Koziatek, has called for more nuanced discussion of race and the role of school police in LAUSD. In her interview with us, Koziatek declined to say how she would have voted over the summer on a proposal to cut the department's budget.

CLAIM: Schmerelson's lies "are being spread by the same special interests who protected teachers accused of child abuse, destroying victims lives and costing taxpayers millions in settlements."

Pro-charter school groups have criticized incumbent board members for LAUSD's past sexual abuse scandals. This illustration shows excerpts from ads in (counter-clockwise from bottom left) 2015, 2017 and 2019. (Illustration of L.A. City Ethics Commission documents by KPCC/LAist)

This ad references one sexual abuse scandal that predates Schmerelson's time on the board.

A teacher at LAUSD's Miramonte Elementary was arrested in January 2012. The subsequent legal case and court settlements were all resolved by November 2014 — months before Schmerelson took office.

Schmerelson was on the board in 2016 and 2020, when LAUSD reached settlements involving allegations made against a teacher at De La Torre and Telfair elementary schools in 2014.

The California Charter Schools Association's political arm has used this line of attack against at least two prior LAUSD board candidates — Steve Zimmer in 2017 and Bennett Kayser in 2015 — both of whom were on the board when the Miramonte scandal broke.

In this year's primary, a pro-charter spender attempted to tie current board member Jackie Goldberg to Miramonte — even though she wasn't elected to the board until 2019.

In Schmerelson's case, the L.A. Times wrote that the ad's link between Schmerelson and the abuse cases is "misleading."

CLAIM: Schmerelson "tripled his salary" and expanded LAUSD's "bloated administration by 20%" and, "under Schmerelson, the district ... is near bankruptcy."

This isn't the only ad to fault Schmerelson for a decision or policy district leaders made collectively. Several ads attempt to lay blame with Schmerelson for other choices that either aren't his, or aren't his alone, to make:

  • Schmerelson's salary did triple — but he wasn't responsible for increasing it. As we wrote in February, an independent commission sets LAUSD board members' salaries.
  • LAUSD is spending more money than it takes in. The district also has more than $1 billion in reserves. The soonest those reserves could run out is during the 2022-23 school year. In 2019, Schmerelson called for spending more of those reserves to meet striking teachers' demands. However, he shares responsibility for setting the budget with the other seven board members — and now, a pandemic-triggered recession is the most proximate threat to LAUSD's financial stability.
  • There was a 22% increase in LAUSD's administrative staffing levels... in the five years before Schmerelson joined the board. But since 2015, administrative staffing ranks have held steady — and in any case, Schmerelson doesn't set those levels by himself.

CLAIM: The Schmerelson campaign paid $1,000 to a group called "Continuing the Republican Revolution," which "featured Schmerelson with prominent conservatives on a mailer targeted to right-wing Republicans."

An anti-Scott Schmerelson mailer paid for by the California Charter Schools Association's political arm. (Screenshot/L.A. City Ethics Commission)

Schmerelson's campaign paid $1,000 to appear on a slate mailer that attempts to link a wide variety of candidates with the GOP brand — regardless of their Republican credentials.

Registered GOP voters are a minority in L.A., but their votes can make a difference in a tight race.

So campaign finance records show even progressive city council members like Mike Bonin have paid to appear on these slate mailers. While running for mayor, Eric Garcetti — a bona fide Democrat — paid for a spot on the same "Republican Revolution" mailer in 2013, angering the actual Republican Party of L.A. County, which had endorsed another candidate.

Both sides in the charter/union debate have played this game. Charter-endorsed LAUSD board member Mónica García has also bought a mention on a Republican slate mailer. In 2018, then-state schools superintendent candidate Tony Thurmond criticized his opponent, Marshall Tuck, for appearing on one.

Schmerelson was a registered Republican when he won the seat in 2015, but he has reportedly changed his voter registration since then.

CLAIM: Schmerelson said he thinks "males are discriminated against just as much as females when it comes to" dress codes on campus.

That's an accurate quote. It comes from a debate between Schmerelson and then-student board member Tyler Okeke in April 2019.

Okeke was arguing that most on-campus dress code enforcement targets female students. Schmerelson was pushing back. (The whole discussion takes place around the 6:31:00 mark here.)

"I was a principal," Schmerelson explained in a subsequent candidate forum. "I did not make a habit of going around and just looking for girls who were improperly dressed ... There's no reason why we should discriminate between boys and girls as far as dress code goes."

Okeke had proposed a resolution to create a "universal dress code," aimed at creating more inclusive guidelines for use district-wide. But Schmerelson was one of several board members who voiced concerns the new policy would be too prescriptive.

Okeke ultimately reworked the resolution, and Schmerelson voted along with a unanimous board to approve it in July 2019.

AGAINST CASTELLANOS

CLAIM: Castellanos receives over $200,000 a year in taxpayer money as a "County bureaucrat."

That claim is accurate. She makes around $150,000 per year in pay as a deputy to L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and receives benefits of around $50,000 annually, according to Transparent California.

CLAIM: Castellanos has "zero" education experience and "is the only candidate in this race who has no professional background working with children."

Castellanos has never been a teacher, principal or district official. However, she's worked professionally in education policy in her capacity as co-founder of the advocacy group Reclaim Our Schools L.A.

AGAINST KOZIATEK & FRANKLIN

CLAIM: In the BD3 race, Koziatek will "follow the interests of billionaires and corporations who are trying to privatize and profit off of our schools." In the BD7 race, Ortiz Franklin "would give public school funding to corporate charters" which "would directly fill the pockets of her billionaire backers."

United Teachers Los Angeles' political action committee funded this ad against LAUSD board candidate Marilyn Koziatek. (Screenshot/L.A. City Ethics Commission)

The terms "privatizers" and "billionaires" are common shorthand among charter school critics. The words are meant to evoke broader concerns about charter schools — and the existential threat that critics believe charters pose to district-run schools. To put the ad into context, it's worth unpacking that shorthand.

Charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, but they're managed by non-profit organizations, not the school district.

In the last two decades, charters have grown from obscurity into a massive, parallel school system: dozens of charter-operating nonprofits in L.A. alone, each overseen by its own appointed governing board, each competing with districts (and other charters) to enroll students.

This is what teachers unions and other critics mean when they liken charter growth to "privatization": they believe the government's duty to provide public schooling is being outsourced to a patchwork of under-regulated entities, run by unelected leaders.

(Charter defenders would dispute this characterization on many fronts. For example, they'd contend charters are more directly accountable than district-run schools for their performance and governance — every few years, every charter school must convince the LAUSD board to allow them to remain open.)

As the ads suggest, critics also distrust the motives of the deep-pocketed donors who have enabled charters to grow, not only in number, but in political power. While not all of these donors are definitively "billionaires," as the ad says, some certainly are — for one, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has been a big donor to pro-charter causes.

A UTLA-sponsored ad against Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who's running for an LAUSD board seat. (Screenshot/L.A. City Ethics Commission)

The connection between these "billionaires," charter schools and "profit" isn't always clear.

In some states, for-profit "education management organizations" operate huge numbers of charter schools. In California, just 4% of the state's charter schools were operated by EMOs — and that was before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law banning for-profit charter schools. That said, some for-profit entities contended they wouldn't have to change their operations at all in order to continue running charters as before.

In any event, that's what the shorthand means.

Pro-charter school political groups have had a massive influence on this campaign. The California Charter Schools Association has spent millions supporting Koziatek. Major donors, like Reed Hastings and Bill Bloomfield, have bankrolled a massive independent expenditure campaign aiming to swing the District 7 race to Ortiz Franklin.

But all of this spending legally cannot be done in coordination with the candidates themselves. So where do Koziatek and Ortiz Franklin themselves actually stand on charter schools? Judge for yourself: read Koziatek and Ortiz Franklin's answers in our candidate interviews.

AGAINST KOZIATEK

CLAIM: Koziatek "helped her privately run charter to unfairly double-dip into taxpayers' pockets by grabbing $8 million intended to help small businesses."

Granada Hills Charter High School received an $8.3 million loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. "PPP" is a federal loan program aimed at helping small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

Did Koziatek "help" Granada secure these funds? Koziatek does work at Granada in an administrative role — but Koziatek's name is not listed as an authorized signer for the school's PPP account.

As The New York Times wrote in June, the PPP program highlighted how charter schools "have straddled the line between public schools and private entities."

As non-profit organizations, they are eligible for PPP loans. But unlike other small businesses that saw their revenue streams freeze after the first lockdowns, state school funding — which sustains charters — has continued to flow during the pandemic without interruption.

Plus: many charters were also eligible for federal funding intended to bolster K-12 schools during the pandemic — hence the "double-dipping" charge from teachers unions and other charter critics.

But charter schools don't have easy access to the same financial lifelines as districts. As we wrote back in May, charter officials say they often struggle to find short-term loans with interest rates as low as PPP. They've said the relief program was crucial for some charters to make payroll and cover the extraordinary costs of pandemic relief.

AGAINST ORTIZ FRANKLIN

CLAIM: Ortiz Franklin's "plan" calls for "closing public schools, cutting student services, [and] selling and renting out public school buildings."

L.A.'s main teachers union funded this ad attempting to swing an LAUSD board race against candidate Tanya Ortiz Franklin. (Screenshot/L.A. City Ethics Commission)

Ortiz Franklin has said closing or consolidating schools must be "on the table" as an option to shore up LAUSD's finances.

"It doesn't mean that if it's on the table, [closing or consolidating schools] will be the decision that is made," she told us in an interview. "But in our district, with our history of financial instability, everything has to be on the table."

LAUSD's enrollment has declined steadily for more than a decade — and every student who leaves costs the district state funding. Critics, including the charter association, have said LAUSD has not done enough to bring its costs in line with smaller enrollment.

But the district's defenders say this is what's at stake in the charter schools debate — and in the school board election itself: LAUSD board members, they say, must prevent the growth of charter schools as a matter of its own survival.