Former Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy resigned under pressure last fall and while he isn't on the March ballot for the Board of Education, he might as well be.
In three contested races, most challengers repeatedly discuss the former superintendent — especially his hard-charging style, which they characterize as divisive and autocratic.
They particularly criticize his $1.3-billion iPads-for-all effort, which quickly ran into trouble. (The FBI is investigating that contract.) Some challenge his plan to use student test scores as a substantial portion of a teacher's evaluation. Others question his willingness to work with parents.
"I'm here because of the iPad program that never should have been approved and is under federal investigation," said Filiberto Gonzalez, a parent who is running for the seat held by Tamar Galatzan.
What's rarely mentioned by challengers is Deasy's role in rising test scores, increased graduation rates and reduced student suspensions within the L.A. Unified School District. Incumbents typically take credit for these, while also noting that much remains to be done.
Three incumbents — Galatzan, Richard A. Vladovic and Bennett Kayser — are vying to keep their seats on the seven-member board come March 3. Incumbent George McKenna is uncontested in the race for his seat.
In campaign mail and at debates, the challengers are laying the blame for many school district woes on Deasy's actions and policies as well as on the board that employed him through mid-October.
"People are thinking about John Deasy during this election," said Encino parent Kathy Kantner, who helped organize a campaign forum at North Hollywood High. "They're looking at which board members supported him and the stances candidates are taking in relation to him."
She added that Deasy's legacy is complex and that its effect on the election is hard to predict: "People are looking at what we had and what we want in the future."
Galatzan faces five challengers in District 3, which covers about half of the San Fernando Valley, and all of them have sought to link her with Deasy. Among incumbents on the ballot, Galatzan was Deasy's closest ally, but not a guaranteed follower. She fought, for example, to preserve local school funding that Deasy wanted to shift to campuses in lower-income parts of the district.
Her challengers, meanwhile, push hard on her support of the iPads — an effort that Deasy called a civil rights imperative.
Carl J. Petersen faulted the use of school construction bonds to buy the devices. The parent of five also prefers well-stocked computer labs to the purchase for each student of what he called a "glorified toy."
Another parent candidate, Elizabeth Badger Bartels, blamed the school board, which she said "cowered" to Deasy, for allowing him "to run amok."
She also said she is concerned that students would not be safe walking home with the expensive iPads.
Ankur Patel chose to focus on the cost of the Pearson curriculum installed on the iPads, pointing to other alternatives, including free material available online.
Retired Principal Scott Mark Schmerelson said that potential conflicts of interest behind the contract bothered him. And he called Deasy's leadership style "a reign of terror.... Everyone was terrified at the schools."
For now the job of superintendent is held by Ramon Cortines, who came out of retirement to run L.A. Unified. He's expected to remain until a new leader is hired, a task that will fall to the board, including the incoming members.
There was broad agreement among challengers and incumbents that the district needs someone who, unlike Deasy, would be an inclusive leader skilled at building consensus.
Galatzan suggested that current school board members were at least as much to blame as Deasy for problems with the way the school system is managed.
"One of the things I've realized recently is how hard it is to have seven bosses" who can't agree "on what day of the week it is," she said at the North Hollywood forum.
Galatzan, who is seeking a third term, addressed iPad critics by saying that the district should provide technology to students, especially those who can't afford it.
"It's imperative we not go backwards," Galatzan said, alluding to district progress. "We're on the right path.... Now is not the time to change."
In District 7, which stretches from Watts south to the Harbor area, two-term incumbent Vladovic voiced a similar message while attempting to avoid discussing Deasy. The two had personal conflicts but agreed on some key policies.
When Deasy's departure came up at a Wilmington campaign forum with his two challengers, Vladovic responded: "You'll want to ask Dr. Deasy why he left.... He was a respected educator and he did a good job.... I don't talk about people behind their back."
Lydia A. Gutierrez, a teacher in Long Beach, roundly criticized past and current district leadership, faulting both Deasy and Cortines.
Preschool Principal Euna Anderson, had nothing positive to contribute about the former superintendent, saying that she preferred to leave views about Deasy to "public opinion."
In District 5, which encompasses areas northwest of downtown and the cities of southeast L.A. County, one-term incumbent Kayser assertively tallies Deasy's departure as a step forward.
Kayser, who has two challengers, could see fallout over the iPad program because, unlike Galatzan, he faces a well-financed opposition campaign.
A flier, paid for by a pro-charter school group, denounced Kayser for failing "to oppose a deal that wasted $1.3 billion on Apple iPads."
L.A. Unified lawyers wouldn't let Kayser deliberate or vote on the initial iPad contract, for $30 million, because he owned a small amount of Apple stock. He subsequently sold the holdings and emerged as a project critic.
The school system "bought 100,000 iPads and didn't know what to do with them," Kayser said at a forum in El Sereno. "I wish the superintendent hadn't done what he did to bring the FBI in."
Andrew Thomas, a parent and grant evaluator, faulted Kayser for entering the iPad fray too late. In an interview, he said he found Deasy impressive and smart but faulted him for making employees feel "oppressed."
Ref Rodriguez is supported by advocates of independently run charter schools, who strongly backed Deasy. But even Rodriguez took a shot in Deasy's direction. Rodriguez said he decided to run after learning of a student scheduling debacle at Jefferson High last fall in which a new student records system was found to be faulty. Deasy was widely blamed for not fully addressing that problem sooner.
At the same time, said Rodriguez, who co-founded a group of charter schools, it's time to learn from mistakes without continually rehashing the past.
"John Deasy," he said, "is gone."