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For Years, LAUSD Elections Have Been Expensive And Negative. This Primary Has Been Different

A series of campaign mailers, all printed on glossy cardstock pages, are spread on the floor. Both feature women posed smiling toward the camera and campaign messages for the candidates, Rocío Rivas and María Brenes.
Mailers from this year's race for the District 2 seat on the L.A. Unified School District's Board of Education. United Teachers Los Angeles has backed Rocío Rivas. Brenes has the support of the labor union SEIU Local 99, and also represents a coalition of "third-way" actors in LAUSD politics.
(Photo illustration by Kyle Stokes
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When Rocío Rivas was weighing a run for the Los Angeles Unified School Board, she braced herself to be the target of big political spending and negative advertising.

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“You know there’s going to be negativity,” said Rivas, who’s running for the open Board District 2 seat. “So yes, I asked myself those questions. And it was like, ‘Yeah, I can handle it.’ I know it’s part of the political process, the political game.”

So far, though, there’s been very little mudslinging in the races for three LAUSD board seats this year — and overall, spending on the races is way down, according to data from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

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Outside political groups have spent $3.2 million trying to sway Tuesday’s LAUSD primaries — including $173,000-worth of negative advertising.

That’s a change from the recent pattern in LAUSD, which has seen some of the roughest and most expensive school board campaigns in the nation in recent years. In 2020, outside political groups dropped a record $8.4 million on the LAUSD primaries. Nearly two-thirds of that money paid for attack ads.

A Lull In Charter School-Teachers Union Debate

The main reason for the dropoff? Big donors usually allied with charter schools — the biggest spenders in LAUSD races in recent years — are largely sitting these races out. Since the pandemic’s onset, charter school fights have, at least for now, taken a backseat to more urgent debates over LAUSD enrollment, school police and funding issues.

With pro-charter donors less involved, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) — the teachers union that regularly spends the second-most on LAUSD elections — has had a free hand to concentrate its resources behind Rivas in the wide-open BD2 race.

Rivas, who currently works as an aide to another school board member, is one of four candidates. María Brenes, Miguel Ángel Segura, and Erica Vilardi-Espinoza are also running to replace termed-out Mónica García.

Brenes is the current fundraising leader in the BD2 race, and has benefited from outside spending from SEIU Local 99, the union for many non-teaching LAUSD employees. She said, if elected, it would be difficult to step away from her current job as leader of the influential advocacy group Inner City Struggle.

However, Brenes said, “Leadership often is stepping in when you’re needed and fulfilling a duty to your community.”

Can Incumbents Avoid Runoffs?

Two other LAUSD incumbents are hoping to win new four-year terms.

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Kelly Gonez currently represents Board District 6, which covers the East San Fernando Valley. She faces challenges from Marvin Rodriguez and Jess Arana, in a race with relatively little outside spending. Still, Gonez’s campaign has out-raised her opponents by a 7-to-1 margin.

Gonez won her seat in 2017 with pro-charter groups' backing. This year, she won UTLA's endorsement, though the teachers union has spent little to boost her campaign.

In Board District 4, which spans L.A.’s westside and the southwest Valley, Nick Melvoin has amassed a $546,000 war chest — and his opponents, Tracey Schroeder and Gentille Barkhordarian, have reported no fundraising. UTLA, despite their antipathy to Melvoin, declined to endorse either of his challengers.

Still, two Melvoin supporters — Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and longtime Democratic donor Bill Bloomfield — have spent $173,000 on ads attacking Melvoin’s challengers, perhaps hoping to ensure there’s no need for a November runoff in Melvoin’s race.

This is the only negative spending the Ethics Commission has reported in the LAUSD campaign so far.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).