A push by backers of charter schools to have a bigger voice on the Los Angeles Board of Education appears to have paid off, according to early election returns in three contested races.
The campaign was marked by the emergence of a charter group as the major funder. In one pivotal race — which it was winning — the group went head to head with the teachers' union, a traditional powerhouse in board elections. If charter supporters capture that seat, they would have significantly more influence in board policy.
In the most expensive race, the charter-backed candidate, Ref Rodriguez, was narrowly leading incumbent Bennett Kayser, setting the stage for a May 19 runoff.
"Clearly, the people in the district are looking for change and are ready for a new voice on the school board," said Michael Soneff, Rodriguez's campaign manager.
The two other incumbents, Tamar Galatzan and Richard Vladovic, led in their races. Both also were supported by the charter advocates.
Although final votes were still being tallied Tuesday evening, the impact of the campaign will be felt in the coming months. The seven-member board will select a new superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, deal with a highly troubled technology effort that is under investigation by the FBI and potentially resolve contentious contract negotiations with the teachers' union.
Also at stake is the direction of reforms, including whether charter schools will play an ever-increasing role, and the effect that would have on the rest of the school system.
"One side is trying to bring charters in and the other is trying to keep charters out — so it's important for them," said Gil Hurtado, a councilman in South Gate, which is part of L.A. Unified. "But what's important for me is the best education for the children of this community."
The race with the heaviest campaign spending — and the harshest attacks — unfolded in the contest between one-term incumbent Kayser and Rodriguez. Parent-group leader Andrew Thomas was in third place, according to the returns.
Kayser was supported by the teachers' union; Rodriguez by the California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates. Kayser is the board's most relentless opponent of charter schools; Rodriguez co-founded one of the region's largest charter organizations.
Late Tuesday, Kayser said he felt vindicated by the results even though he will face a difficult general election.
"The awful advertising against me that came out in the mail and on television from the charter schools association and Rodriguez has backfired," Kayser said.
That district encompasses Los Feliz, Eagle Rock and cities of southeast Los Angeles County.
The other incumbents were well ahead in the contested races, but their challenge was to win more than 50% of the vote and thus avoid a runoff. Neither was accomplishing that goal in the early returns.
Two-term incumbent Galatzan was followed by Scott Mark Schmerelson, Elizabeth Badger Bartels, Carl J. Petersen, Ankur Patel and Filiberto Gonzalez, in that order. Galatzan's district covers much of the San Fernando Valley.
Two-term incumbent and current board President Vladovic built an early lead over Lydia A. Gutierrez and Euna Anderson. That district stretches from Watts to the harbor.
A South L.A. seat held by George McKenna was uncontested. McKenna was first elected in August to fill the position left vacant after the death of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.
In cementing its claim as a political force, the charter schools group attracted many of the donors who gave in the past to campaigns against teachers' union candidates. These earlier efforts were led by former Mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa.
The group formed a campaign committee, Parent Teacher Alliance, that paid for campaign mail, radio ads, polling and phone banking. The group's spending total through election day was $795,966. Nearly half the money went to negative ads against Kayser.
Charter schools are publicly funded and independently managed; most are nonunion. In L.A., more than 100,000 students, or 15% of district enrollment, attend charters, the most of any school system in the nation.
Since September, the donors to the charter group include Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings (who gave $1.5 million), former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ($450,000), Jim Walton of the Wal-Mart founding family ($250,000) and local philanthropist Eli Broad ($155,000).
The teachers' union has spent $555,133 for Kayser, according to filings through Tuesday. About 15% of that total went to pay for negative ads against Rodriguez.
The charter group also spent nearly $100,000 on behalf of Galatzan.
Another political action committee, Great Public Schools Los Angeles, spent more than $143,000 for Galatzan. This PAC has endorsed the same candidates as the charter group and has a partly overlapping base of donors.
Independent spending for Galatzan totaled about $270,000. Her five opponents raised a combined $85,000.
"We're working hard," said Gonzalez. "If we make it through to the runoff, it will be one of the most improbable of victories."
The charter group also spent $73,682 to elect Vladovic, far more than any other funding source.
The teachers' union sat out the Vladovic and Galatzan races.
Also on the ballot Tuesday were four of seven at-large seats for the L.A. Community College District Board of Trustees.
The leading vote-getters were:
Andra Hoffman, Sydney Kamlager, Scott Svonkin and Mike Fong.
There are no run-offs for the college district; the top vote-getter wins.