Candidates backed by the teachers union won Tuesday's contested races for the Los Angeles Board of Education, but they will answer to not only the union but other powerful political forces, including the city's mayor and backers of charter schools.
Once the election results become final, the new members of the seven-person board are expected to be Marshall High teacher Steve Zimmer and, in a surprisingly close race, San Fernando City Councilwoman Nury Martinez. Also victorious was school board President Monica Garcia, who ran unopposed in District 2 of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"Steve brings experience as a teacher and as a community organizer," Garcia said Tuesday night. "Nury is an LAUSD graduate, a new mom and an experienced elected official. They both bring an attitude of 'Let's move this district forward,' and an urgency."
Zimmer echoed Garcia in an interview this morning, calling attention to the district's current budget deficit.
"We have to pull everybody together to deal with our financial crisis and make sure we maintain our fiscal solvency, while at the same time keeping ourselves focused on this graduation rate," he said. "I think we can be bold. I don't think financial responsibility needs to be the enemy of innovation."
Both newcomers benefited from substantial cash poured into their races by United Teachers Los Angeles, especially Zimmer. The union spent more than $287,000 in an independent campaign on his behalf, helping him defeat Fairfax High teacher Mike Stryer in District 4, which covers most of the Westside and stretches into Hollywood and the southwest San Fernando Valley.
Also on the ballot were four seats for the seven-member board of the Los Angeles Community College District. Two incumbents claimed victory, while two others finished first but will face runoffs in May.On the L.A. Unified school board, Zimmer, 38, will replace retiring incumbent Marlene Canter, who was regarded as being independent of the union.
Martinez, 35, benefited from considerably less union financial support -- just under $28,000, according to the most recent campaign filings -- and it almost wasn't enough as Martinez and college instructor Louis Pugliese nearly split the vote in District 6, which covers the east San Fernando Valley. Martinez achieved a 482-vote margin, probably enough to withstand any effect from lingering, uncounted ballots.
On paper, the arrival of Zimmer and Martinez works out to a one-vote union gain on a seven-member body with already-strong union sympathies.
But board politics aren't that simple, in large measure because of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who won reelection Tuesday.
In the 2007 school board race, money raised by Villaraigosa carried the day -- resulting in three new board members and a majority allied with the mayor. The mayor's four-vote bloc remains intact with Tuesday's reelection of Garcia, whose district surrounds the downtown core.
The Garcia-led board delivered the main prize sought by the mayor: the right to control improvement efforts through the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools at 10 campuses that opted to take part.
Over the last two years, the mayor and the union have joined forces on some matters.
Neither the union nor the mayor, for example, were enamored of L.A. Unified schools Supt. David L. Brewer, a retired admiral hired in late 2006 without input from Villaraigosa. The board majority -- with the mayor's silent assent and the union's cheerleading -- forced Brewer out in December.
Union leadership supported the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools as a way to empower teachers and as a counterweight to charter schools, which are public schools managed independently of the school district.
Most charters are nonunion, and the teachers union has tried to limit the number of charter schools and contain their influence in L.A. Unified. The union's closest allies on the school board generally voted accordingly.
But the mayor's education allies also include charter-school advocates. The mayor signaled his support when a charter organization sought to take over Locke High School in South Los Angeles. And the board approved the action -- over the objections of union leaders.
The overall political dynamic for board members has been to keep the mayor and the union content while, presumably, also following their own compasses.
Garcia insisted that common goals among all the parties compensate for their differences.
"It's a constant conversation of how do we leverage what we have and make it work," she said.
This balancing act has been evident in a dispute at Ritter Elementary in South Los Angeles, one of the mayor's schools. A sizable contingent of teachers and parents became angry when the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools resisted their request to reinstate a dual-language program intended to help students become fully bilingual in Spanish and English.
"We need to loudly hold these 'partnerships' accountable whenever they ride roughshod over members of our school communities," UTLA activist Anne Zerrien-Lee wrote in an e-mail copied to three board members allied with the mayor. "The students deserve better than just being used by the mayor as steppingstones to higher office."
(The Times obtained this and other e-mails cited through a public records act request.)
In another e-mail with a similar circulation, bilingual education activist Cheryl Ortega wrote: "There are two issues here -- the right of parents to make educational choices for their children and the right to be partners in a partnership. ... If reform is in the mind of the mayor, then community collaboration is the only way to succeed."
For its part, the mayor's team, eager to raise test scores, had concerns over the academic success of the Ritter program. But there has also been underlying tensions over who would ultimately wield control -- a school committee with strong teacher representation or the school principal working with her superiors.
Board member Richard Vladovic, who represents the Ritter area, responded to these e-mails through his chief of staff, David Kooper. His response suggests that he did not want to alienate the mayor or the union.
"Tell her [Ortega] we will continue to advocate for her but it is a partnership issue," Vladovic wrote. He added: "Do not put anything in writing."
The mayor also endorsed Tuesday's winners, though he applied none of his financial muscle to the race. In addition, Zimmer had the support of former board member Caprice Young and former Mayor Richard Riordan, who are leading charter school advocates.
The union, in other words, accepted Zimmer's efforts to collect supporters whose priorities conflict with those of the union. With about 150 charter schools in Los Angeles -- and more on the way -- Zimmer was responding to a new political reality.
"In this campaign, every time someone would come on board, it would send some shock waves to other folks," Zimmer said, "because they weren't folks that usually worked together. But if this district is going to make it, everybody has got to pull together."
On this round, the real political tug of war was destined not to occur at the ballot box but in the aftermath.
In the community college races, for Seat 2, incumbent Angela J. Reddock is headed for a runoff with auditor Tina Park.
Incumbent Kelly Candaele won Seat 4, besting community college professor Roy Burns.
For Seat 6, incumbent Nancy Pearlman faces a runoff against either Robert Nakahiro or Jozef Thomas Essavi, who were locked in a close battle for the second spot.
In the race for Seat 7, Miguel Santiago finished ahead of school administrator Kurt S. Lowry. Santiago had been appointed to the seat last year after his predecessor was elected to the state Assembly.