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Could the L.A. school board's balance of power tip pro-charter?

On Tuesday, charter school supporters have their best chance yet to tip the scales and win a controlling majority on the Los Angeles Board of Education.

Three of the seven seats are up for grabs, and charter backers have strong candidates, seemingly unlimited financial resources — with major help from former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan — and the enthusiastic support of a growing number of charter-school families.

The charter-backed candidates are Kelly Gonez in District 6, incumbent Monica Garcia in District 2, and Allison Holdorff Polhill and Nick Melvoin — both running against school board President Steve Zimmer — in District 4. If they prevail, they could form a majority alliance along with board member Ref Rodriguez, a charter school founder who is not up for reelection.

That would be a major power shift for a governing body that leans anti-charter but also is required to follow state laws friendly to charter schools’ rapid growth.

Their votes could move the nation’s second largest school system from steady, strong charter growth to swift expansion at a time when L.A. Unified is struggling with years of enrollment decline. At the very least, a pro-charter majority on the board could make more space available for charters on district-owned campuses, a longtime goal of charter operators.

Winners of the school board seats also will have extra-long terms, 5 ½ years rather than four, because the city is changing the timing of municipal elections.

Charter critics insist a pro-charter majority could permanently harm traditional public schools and the students they serve. Charter supporters see more charters as a benefit to families, especially those whose children now attend public schools with low standardized test scores. Some of them downplay the potential importance of the current election, as if averse to jinxing their prospects.

“We have some very talented candidates on the ballot, and voters who are much more engaged this time around,” said Richard Garcia, elections director for California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, which controls much of the pro-charter campaign funding.

Voter engagement will matter in what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

Garcia and Rodriguez spoke at a February rally with participants from 20 charters, located mostly north and east of downtown, an area where many low-income Latino parents have opted for charters. Organizers said more than 1,000 people took part in the event, which included a march from City Hall to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. The charter-parent profile in District 4 is somewhat different, with many middle- and upper-middle-class parents.

Charters are publicly funded, free public schools that in California are managed by nonprofit organizations and are exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Most charters are nonunion, and their growth has presented a challenge both to powerful employee unions and the school district, which loses funding tied to enrollment when students leave its schools for charters.

With faster charter growth, L.A. Unified would find itself under increasing financial strain, because of enormous fixed costs from such things as lawsuit settlements, building maintenance, pension debt and retiree health benefits. District officials said they are worried about maintaining programs, including ones for students who are more expensive to educate, such as those with moderate to severe disabilities or serious behavioral issues.

Already, no other school system in the nation has more charters or charter students than L.A. Their increasing numbers are a result not just of their popularity but also of a major push by philanthropists advocating market-driven reform, with increased school choice for parents and accountability based on test scores.

School choice also is a focus of the Trump administration’s emerging education plans. In his first speech to Congress, the president said he wanted lawmakers to pass a bill “that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

L.A.’s charter-friendly school-board candidates say that they see choice much more narrowly. They oppose for-profit charters as well as vouchers, which are government-funded subsidies that help parents pay for private schools.

They also downplay charter connections, saying that as board members their focus would be on creating and sustaining successful schools of any kind, not just charters. They frequently offer that answer when asked about whether the growth of charters carries potential risks as well as benefits.

The charter association speaks about its hopes for a revamped board in almost identical terms. A recently formed organization with many of the same backers, Great Public Schools Now, also talks about creating successful schools of any kind. It grew out of a confidential plan, initially spearheaded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, for rapid and massive charter-only expansion.

Some charter critics say they believe that strategy is still being pursued despite the inclusive messaging.

“This school board contest is about whether the civic institution of public education is going to continue to survive,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “This year’s contests are the most crystallized version of the educator and youth advocate against the billionaire-funded candidates.”

UTLA, which represents about 32,000 teachers, nurses and counselors, is the biggest campaign contributor other than charter supporters, and it has help from other local unions as well as state and national teacher unions.

In theory, the election results could strengthen the union’s leverage. But UTLA is playing more defense than offense, using 80% of its $1.7 million investment to date for Zimmer in District 4, which includes West L.A. and the west San Fernando Valley.

One role of the school board is to evaluate and approve petitions for new charters and to evaluate charter renewals every five years. The vast majority of the time, Zimmer, 46, has voted to approve and renew charters. But he also has stated his desire to limit charter growth, and charter supporters worry he will act more aggressively to do so. Some were angered by his votes against particular charters.

A campaign to defeat Zimmer has spent $1.3 million, while an allied campaign, managed by charter association officials, is spending an additional $1.7 million on the three board races.

The major donor to emerge is Riordan, who gave $1 million to the anti-Zimmer campaign and another $1 million to California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates.

“In L.A. County, the charters do much better than the straight schools,” said Riordan said in an interview, citing a 2015 Stanford study that is reputable but not universally accepted. “It’s not necessarily true throughout the state, but in L.A., the charter schools were way ahead.”

In an unusual attempt to squeeze Zimmer out of a runoff, charter forces have funded both Melvoin, 31, and Holdorff Polhill, 51. Melvoin taught in Watts for two years through Teach for America after college before earning a law degree in 2014 and working for education-reform groups. Holdorff Polhill was a parent leader at the public schools her three children attended, and served as board president of Palisades Charter High School. Also in the District 4 race and proclaiming independence from special interests is Gregory Martayan, 33, who owns a public relations firm.

In District 6, in the east Valley, charter backers like their chances with Gonez, 28, a charter-school science teacher who also worked in the Obama administration, in part because of her ballot designation as a teacher. That worked well for current District 6 board member Mónica Ratliff, who taught fifth grade at the district’s San Pedro Elementary, and is leaving the board to run for the L.A. City Council. Gonez has far more money behind her than Ratliff, an independent, ever did.

Those advantages could make things hard for Imelda Padilla, the union-backed candidate in District 6, although the 29-year-old labor and community organizer has some enthusiastic backers both inside and outside the union.

Others running in District 6 include Patty Lopez, 49, who lost her bid for reelection to the state Legislature in November; Araz Parseghian, 37, and Gwendolyn Posey, 47, parents who have volunteered extensively in schools and the community; and animal-rights activist Jose Sandoval, 38.

The teachers union has conceded in District 2, which includes downtown and nearby neighborhoods. Incumbent Garcia, 48, has supported charters and also backed reform measures that the union opposed, such as using test scores to evaluate teachers. But given the extent of their resources, union leaders questioned whether they could defeat Garcia, who has support from some unions and has built a community base.

Two challengers are running against Garcia: veteran Roosevelt High teacher Lisa Alva, 56, and 49-year-old parent activist Carl J. Petersen.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Editor's note: Times education coverage receives funding from a number of foundations, including one mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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