Charter-school backers and the teachers union are on opposite sides in next week's Los Angeles school board elections. But both sides view the school district's ill-fated and expensive effort to provide iPads to all students as key to victory.
A charter school group wants to defeat incumbent Bennett Kayser, saying he should be held accountable for the troubled technology project. It has spent nearly $2 million so far to unseat him.
The teachers union, meanwhile, says incumbent Tamar Galatzan should be ousted because of her support for the effort. It has spent more than $1 million opposing Galatzan and supporting Kayser.
The iPad controversy that has plagued L.A. Unified is proving politically toxic for incumbents.
"The issue hurts us all," said school board President Richard Vladovic, who also is running for reelection. "We were all in favor of it for different reasons and to a different extent."
The winners of Tuesday's election will play a major role in selecting the next superintendent to run L.A. Unified and also will serve a six-year term, instead of the usual four years, because local elections are being merged with state and national balloting. The board also is expected to approve a new teacher evaluation system and manage the growth of independently operated charter schools, which are outside of direct district control.
Such issues are crucial to L.A. Unified, but nothing is getting the same attention as iPads. The tablets have become defining in much the way that incumbents in the 1990s suffered for serving during the construction of the Belmont Learning Complex, which became the nation's most expensive and protracted building project.
The iPad effort began with the goal of giving a tablet to every student, teacher and campus administrator, at a cost that would have reached about $1.3 billion in taxpayer-approved construction and modernization bond funds. The program was plagued by start-up problems, incomplete planning and questions about the bidding process — which has become the subject of a federal investigation.
Blame Kayser, say mailers sent to voters by California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates.
"On Kayser's watch: The LAUSD wasted $1.3 billion on a controversial iPad program that is now the subject of an FBI criminal probe," one flier said. "The LAUSD board routinely raids bond funds to pay for boondoggle projects like the iPad Program."
Blame Galatzan, teachers union mailers say.
"We had the opportunity to give our kids state of the art facilities and a bright future," one mailer said. "But Tamar Galatzan spent that money on an inside deal so bad that the FBI is investigating and the iPads don't even work right."
Kayser, for his part, pointed out that he was a persistent critic of former Supt. John Deasy, who resigned under pressure in October, largely because of fallout over the iPads. Kayser said his support for a limited iPad project was primarily aimed at making sure students had enough computers to take new online state tests.
Kayser's opponent, Ref Rodriguez, said he would have handled oversight of the project more effectively.
"I would have been much more forceful with the superintendent or much more collaborative with him to see if it is working," Rodriguez said. "Having a relationship with the superintendent is critical to a governing board member."
Kayser and Rodriguez, a charter school co-founder, are competing to represent District 5, which stretches from near downtown to the cities in southeast L.A. County.
Charters are free from some rules that govern traditional public schools; most are nonunion.
Kayser wants to reduce the number of those campuses, which makes him a target for the charter advocates and a favorite of the teachers union. Galatzan is generally supportive of charters, which has earned her the support of that group; she's long been at odds with the union.
Galatzan's opponent, retired principal Scott Schmerelson, casts her as "the undying supporter" of Deasy, and as someone who helped "bamboozle" the district into the iPad effort.
They are vying for the seat in District 3, which covers most of the west San Fernando Valley.
Galatzan said some of her trust in Deasy and his team was misplaced and noted that nearly the entire board followed staff recommendations to purchase the devices. She also said that the project has been mischaracterized as a complete failure.
"These are not toys sitting in a closet," she said. "Someone should come out to my schools to see how they're using them."
Many supporters of Deasy have lined up behind Rodriguez and Galatzan, including the former superintendent, who contributed $500 to each campaign.
Vladovic said his iPad vote was intended to give Deasy's administration the chance to test its plan in phases. But he doesn't have to contend with an anti-iPad campaign blitz. He has forged a detente with the union and charter advocates.
In District 7, which includes the south Los Angeles and Harbor area, Vladovic is opposed by Lydia Gutierrez, an elementary school teacher in Long Beach Unified with a background as an accounting manager.
Gutierrez also has latched onto the iPad theme, although she lacks funding to broadcast it widely.
Vladovic, she said, "has a record of showing that he did not look over the accountability of the iPad. He did not ask the right questions."
The three incumbents cite improving test scores and graduation rates, even during the recent recession, as reasons they should be reelected.