3 LA Unified board incumbents heading into May runoffs
LA School Report | March 4, 2015
LA Unified’s election season moved into runoffs last night with no candidate in the three contested races winning a majority of votes for a board seat and the 5 1/2 year term that voters approved yesterday.
A low turnout of 8.2 percent sent three incumbents — Tamar Galatzan in District 3, Bennett Kayser in 5 and board President Richard Vladovic in 7 — into the May 19 general elections and gave two of them, Galatzan and Vladovic, Republican opponents.
George McKenna, running unopposed, won the District 1 seat.
Galatzan and Vladovic finished first in their races as expected. But it was a victory by Ref Rodriguez, a charter school executive, over Kayser that raised eyebrows the highest last night and made it a big night for the California Charter Schools Association.
In his first run for public office, Rodriguez won 38.6 percent of the vote to Kayser’s 35.8, assuring another 11 weeks of the proxy war between the charter association and the teachers union, UTLA, for greater control of the seven-member board.
“We are going to change LAUSD for the better,” Rodriguez said in a statement this morning. “Our children deserve high quality schools, and we are on our way to achieving that. I am very proud of the campaign we are running, and I’m looking forward to fighting and winning the general election.
The charter group worked mightily to deny Kayser a second term, spending almost $600,000 (through last month) for campaign material, including harsh attacks that suggested Kayser was a racist.
Kayser had almost equal support from the teachers as the only candidate running in the primaries that the union supported. UTLA spent more than $541,000 to help Kayser, its strongest ally on the board.
Andrew Thomas, a third candidate running as a moderate in District 5, won 19 percent of the vote.
Rodriguez’s victory by no means assures that he wins the seat in May. Kayser finished second in the primary four years ago and rebounded to win his first term, over Luis Sanchez.
“We expected we would be in a runoff,” Marco Flores, Chair of UTLA’s political action committee said of the District 5 race. “I mean, it’s like Luis Sanchez four years ago, where there’s not surprise of what happened. But the general election is a totally different race. It will be a smaller turnout, but at the same time the people who voted for Andrew Thomas will have to make a choice and we think they’ll vote for Kayser.”
In a statement this afternoon, Kayser said, “We have held the out-of-state billionaires at bay, and together, we live to fight another day! Our children are counting on us, we must succeed in stopping this attempt to hijack our school district by wealthy interest groups.”
In seeking a third term on the board, Galatzan won easily, with 39.4 percent of the vote. But there are two ways to look at the results: Five candidates opposing her combined for the other 60 percent of the vote, which foretells an upset in the runoff if voters coalesce behind the second-place finisher, Scott Schmerelson, a retired principal.
Schmerelson won his spot in the runoff with 20 percent, well ahead of the third-place finisher, Ankur Patel at 13. percent.
“This was a bumpy a ride but I’m so happy,” Schmerelson told LA School Report this morning. “One of the things that all of us running against Tamar spoke about was that no matter who wins we would be nice to each other so we could work together for the general election. So that’s what we’re doing now; we are discussing what strategy we’re going to use to have their backers now back me.”
Schmerelson’s finish poses another challenge to UTLA, if it wants to mount a serious fight for the seat. While Galatzan also benefited from spending by the state charter group ($94,000 through last month) and another reform organization, Great Public Schools: Los Angeles ($143,000), UTLA spent nothing on any of her challengers, and now faces a decision on whether to support a Republican in Schmerelson.
“It is a non-partisan election; what does it have to do with the kids at school?” Schmerelson said. “I may be registered as a Republican but what does that have to do with the kids of LA Unified?”
Addressing possible UTLA support for Schmerelson, Flores said, “We never sat down and interviewed him so that still needs to happen. We’re going to sit down with him and see what he says.”
UTLA has the same decision to make in District 7, where Vladovic won an unusually close race. As a board member since 2007 and president since 2013, he had 42.9 percent of the vote to 37.7 percent for Lydia Gutierrez, another Republican, who had a strong third-place showing last year for State Superintendent of Public Education, winning nearly a million votes.
In challenging Galatzan, the union might get some political cover from Diane Ravitch, a former assistant Secretary of Education and staunch opponent of reform efforts and charter schools who endorsed Schmerelson in the primary. He also had the support of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the principals’ union.
Vladovic, who did little campaigning, had the benefit of the charter schools association, which spent about $75,000 on his behalf. The runoff could boil down to which candidate appeals to the 19.3 percent who voted for a third candidate in the race, Euna Anderson.
What makes any runoff speculation dangerous is the utter lack of interest voters showed in selecting school board members. Galatzan’s total votes, 12,029, was the most any candidate received — in a district where more than 364,000 people are registered. Rodriguez’s total was 8,217 in a district of 274,000 registered voters and Vladovic got 4,554 of the 286,00 registered in his district.
Voter approval — by 76 percent — of aligning school board elections with state and federal elections was promoted as a way to increase voter turnout for board seats. It remains to be seen.
* Adds quotes from Kayser, Schmerelson and Flores