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LAUSD Could Get Independent Redistricting Panel — And Matching Funds For Board Candidates — In Fallout From LA City Council Scandal

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.
File: 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.
(Photo illustration by Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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Los Angeles leaders will consider rewriting the city’s election rules to allow L.A. Unified School Board candidates to receive public funding for their campaigns — a change that, if enacted, has the potential to upend the power dynamics in LAUSD elections that special interest groups have dominated for years.

In an exclusive interview with LAist, acting L.A. City Council President Mitch O’Farrell said Friday he will include plans to have LAUSD candidates qualify for “matching funds” in a broader proposal that overhauls the city’s electoral system.

"The fact that LAUSD doesn’t have [a matching funds program] in existence right now, I think, limits the possible robust field of candidates that would have a chance to make their voices heard," O'Farrell said.

The proposal would also empower an independent commission to redraw LAUSD’s electoral districts every 10 years, mirroring similar changes envisioned for the city council redistricting process. If approved, city council members themselves would no longer have the final say over the boundaries of LAUSD’s electoral districts, or their own.

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"It’s all about good governance reform in general," O'Farrell said.

What Led Up To This Point

O'Farrell said he'll introduce his motion when the council meets next week, though likely not at its next scheduled meeting on Tuesday. He said it's a "little premature" to discuss whether others on the council support the ideas of including LAUSD in the broader package.

The proposal is moving forward at City Hall amid a scandal over an audio recording whose leak has already prompted the resignations of former city council president Nury Martinez and labor leader Ron Herrera.

The recording captured Martinez making racist remarks about a colleague’s son (and many other malicious comments) to Herrera and council colleagues Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo — while the group spoke in frank terms about exerting influence over the redistricting process.

The tapes’ content inspired widespread calls to loosen the city council’s control over the redistricting process — and since the L.A. City Charter governs LAUSD elections, O'Farrell said it isn’t that big a leap to create an independent commission to oversee the redrawing of school board districts as well.

"What we need is consistency and transparency," O'Farrell said. "If we just do the city council alone, I think it would be an oversight if we don’t also include LAUSD — since its elections are governed by the city."

But O’Farrell’s proposal to include LAUSD in the city’s matching funds program adds an unexpected twist — and it could fundamentally alter the forces that have made LAUSD home to some of the nation’s most expensive and divisive school board campaigns.

Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who won her board seat in 2020, said the change will likely make it far easier for first-time candidates — or candidates without traditional political ties — to win school board seats.

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"It’s a lot to raise money for elections in this city. I can tell you as a recent candidate and a first-time candidate, it feels like the funding barrier is just so huge," said Ortiz Franklin, who represents South L.A. and the Harbor. She added that the proposed change "really does lay a broader foundation for more access for regular people to run to represent their neighbors."

Why Public Financing For LAUSD Campaigns Would Matter

For the last decade, most of the advertising you’ve seen about LAUSD board races — in your mailbox, in your text messages, on your answering machine, sometimes even on TV — has been paid for by outside interest groups, not the candidates themselves.

Since 2011, United Teachers Los Angeles and other teachers unions have spent a total of $15.1 million on LAUSD races, according to an LAist analysis of campaign finance records.

Over the same period, advocacy groups and donors allied with charter schools have doled out $35.6 million on LAUSD races — including $13.3 million in 2020 alone.

School board candidates can’t keep up with that kind of spending, mustering a combined $10.9 million since 2011.

The reason why? In LAUSD races, individuals can only donate up to $1,300 per election to a candidate’s campaign — but “independent expenditure” groups are not subject to such limits. Therefore, the most serious LAUSD hopefuls seek out the endorsements of these interest groups, knowing that it will lead to big spending on their behalf in the future.

These forces have conspired to closely tie the L.A. Unified School Board to the policy preferences of these powerful outside players.

Adding LAUSD to the city’s program for publicly financing candidates’ campaigns would give new life to candidates hoping to make a competitive bid for office without the support of an outside group — like a union or pro-charter donor.

How Would ‘Matching Funds’ For LAUSD Campaigns Work?

O’Farrell said he's still hammering out exact details of how LAUSD candidates would participate — but he said that empowering non-traditional candidates would be the primary goal in shaping a matching funds program.

"What criteria would be the most motivating factor," O'Farrell said, "to give someone who might want to run for an open seat somewhere who is a humble school teacher with some great ideas, but can’t compete with independent expenditure money, or with a candidate handpicked to run based on a political agenda that doesn’t have so much to do with serving children?"

The city already has a matching funds program that fuels many mayoral and city council campaigns.

For example, under current rules, city council candidates who raise at least $11,400 from L.A. residents — including at least 100 contributions from individuals living in their districts — qualify for matching funds for their campaigns.

Note

Then, for every dollar a candidate raises, the city will pay the candidate $6 — up to a maximum of $161,000 during a primary election, and $201,000 during the general.

In exchange, candidates are required to participate in a debate or town hall, limit any personal loans to their campaign, and keep their overall campaign spending below a certain cap — a cap that increases if outside groups begin spending heavily in the race.

Ortiz Franklin said her campaign would've benefitted from similar subsidies. During a crowded primary race, she raised $60,000 from her friends — mostly fellow young professionals without deep pockets, she said. It was good enough to best one better-funded opponent to make the general election runoff.

"I did some digital advertising," Ortiz Franklin said, "but I was definitely not able to afford a mailer — and you know, we get so many mailers during the election cycles. That’s how many people look to see who's running. I just couldn't do that at all."

Ortiz Franklin did benefit from outside help. During both the primary and general elections, Manhattan Beach businessman Bill Bloomfield — a teachers union critic and frequent ally to charter school causes — spent more than $5.5 million to buoy Ortiz Franklin and attack her opponents.

While candidates often know seeking endorsements at the beginning of a campaign will lead to independent expenditures later, Ortiz Franklin said she never sought Bloomfield's assistance, and didn't meet him until after the election.

It underlined to Ortiz Franklin how outside spenders are able to reach out to constituents "in ways that candidates should be able to more directly communicate with voters themselves."

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”).

Updated October 15, 2022 at 10:32 AM PDT
This article was updated to clarify the rules around matching funds.