Outside money continues to pour into L.A. school board campaigns

If the Los Angeles school board elections were a movie, then the nominee for best supporting actor might go to an individual who so far has received little attention: Reed Hastings.

Based on documents reviewed by The Times, the co-founder of Netflix has contributed close to $5 million since last September to California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, a major conduit of funds for school board candidates backed by charter school supporters. His most recent contribution was $1 million on Tuesday.

Another recent contributor is a familiar name in education politics. Eli Broad put in $400,000 last Friday, on top of $50,000 he gave in November.

Teachers unions and their allies, including other labor groups, also are spending big, matching the pro-charter side nearly dollar for dollar in one of the races.

The major outside player on that side is the American Federation of Teachers, a national union headed by Randi Weingarten. It has reported contributions of about $1.2 million so far.

If charter backers prevail, they could win their first pro-charter majority on the school board of the nation’s second-largest school system.

Charter supporters are backing Kelly Gonez for the soon-to-be-open seat in District 6 in the east San Fernando Valley. Outside spending on behalf of Gonez totaled about $2.55 million through Thursday, according to records filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

United Teachers Los Angeles is supporting Imelda Padilla, who has benefited from $2.28 million in outside spending, in the race.

In District 4, stretching from the Westside to the west Valley, charter advocates are behind Nick Melvoin, who is challenging union-backed, two-term incumbent Steve Zimmer, the school board’s president.

Outside spending for Melvoin has surpassed $4.65 million; for Zimmer, $2.29 million.

The money is coming in at astonishing levels, with the outside spending reported for Melvoin and Gonez combined rising by more than $800,000 from Wednesday to Thursday.

Both charter-backed candidates have raised more money for their own campaigns than their opponents have.

Charters are privately operated public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Most are nonunion.

CCSA Advocates can use donations for any political purpose, but the L.A. school board race — the most expensive in the nation — has been its primary recent project.

Besides having money, Hastings is a desirable donor for the charter side in left-leaning California. He’s been a regular and reliable contributor to Democratic causes and candidates. That’s a valuable attribute given the state’s anti-Trump political climate — because the Trump administration has made increasing the number of charter schools a central goal.

Like Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Hastings is an ardent, longtime advocate for charters and a major donor to charter causes. (California Gov. Jerry Brown also strongly supports charters, though not as a big-money contributor.)

The teachers union casts donors such as Hastings in the role of outside billionaire trying to buy a local election. Hastings has insisted he simply wants to support meaningful steps to improve public education.

The “outsider” tag also applies to some other donors; some are notably associated with conservative or anti-union politics, or both.

Major CCSA Advocates donors since last September include:

  • Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan: $1 million. (Riordan gave another million to a second, allied campaign to defeat Zimmer.)
  • Conservative GAP co-founder Doris Fisher: $1.05 million
  • Wal-Mart heir Jim Walton: $500,000
  • Philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs (whose late husband, Apple founder Steve Jobs, was assertively anti-union): $250,000
  • Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: $200,000
  • Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton: $200,000

The charter group files a formal spending and donor report twice a year, but some donations come to light sooner because of disclosure rules in particular elections. The same rules capture most of the union spending, most of which is from teachers unions.

United Teachers Los Angeles ended 2016 with about $366,000 in a political action committee established to support its candidates, according to public filings.The union also had $286,000 in a fund for “issues” messages. That latter fund has been tapped to put out flyers with messages such as, “Thank Steve Zimmer for student recovery day.”

Issues advertising cannot refer to an election or an election date. Nor can it urge voters to vote a certain way. But there’s a clear political benefit for the union-backed candidates.

UTLA collects an average of $9.50 a month from the 22% of its 32,000 members who have agreed to contribute, totaling about $67,000 a month from January onward, said union political director Oraiu Amoni. This money is split about 60-40 between candidate and issues messages.

And last week, union members voted to borrow $500,000 from their strike fund for such messages. Past debts to the strike fund will not be paid off until 2020, according to Amoni.

UTLA also is spending a smaller but undisclosed amount as part of a “We Are Public Schools” media campaign, which includes billboards with positive messages about public schools. Some feature pictures of Zimmer or Padilla.

Besides the American Federation of Teachers, other unions have kicked in for those candidates — notably the National Education Assn. with $700,000 and the California Teachers Assn. with $250,000.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

Editor's note: The Times’ education coverage is supplemented by grants from a number of foundations, including the Broad Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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UPDATES:

May 11, 2017, 5:45 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the spending totals through Thursday, May 11.

This article was originally published on Wednesday, May 10.

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