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Rodriguez becomes first charter operator on L.A. school board

Could the teachers union have swept L.A. board races with a better campaign strategy?

Ref Rodriguez on Tuesday became the first person from the charter-school movement to be elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education.

His win, against one-term incumbent Bennett Kayser, came after a bitter and expensive campaign notable for negative attacks by outside groups attempting to affect the outcome.

In the west San Fernando Valley, incumbent Tamar Galatzan lost to Scott Schmerelson. In an area running from South Los Angeles to the L.A. Harbor, incumbent Richard Vladovic defeated Lydia Gutierrez.

Only hours after the polls closed, observers were trying to interpret how Rodriguez won election to the seven-member school board.

Rodriguez, the co-founder of a large charter-school organization, ascribed the outcome to the positive message of his campaign and the hard work he and supporters put in.

“What I'm most proud of is that we ran a campaign about the real issues that our kids face, the real needs that our communities have and the ability to open the doors of our schools and connect them back to the community,” Rodriguez told supporters Tuesday night. "This is what this was all about. The rest of the noise was just a bunch of noise."

Charters are free, publicly funded schools that are exempt from some rules that apply to traditional campuses. Most are non-union.

Supporters of Rodriguez included Viviana Ledezma, 33, a teacher at a traditional elementary school in the L.A. Unified School District. She has a 15-year-old son attending a charter overseen by Rodriguez’s nonprofit, Partnerships to Uplift Communities.

"I love his philosophy on education. I'm excited to see change within our district," Ledezma said. "I want to see more teacher training, accountability. I like the way he holds his teachers accountable."

Other observers said the first-place finish had much to do with the factors Rodriguez dismissed as noise, especially misleading attack mailers that affected both candidates, but rained down more heavily on Kayser.

Neither Rodriguez nor Kayser were responsible for the negative campaigns on their behalf; but neither denounced dubious or exaggerated allegations against their opponents.

California Charter Schools Assn. advocates spent more than $2 million on behalf of Rodriguez; United Teachers Los Angeles spent more than $1 million in support of Kayser.

Although it spent a lot of money, the union made tactical missteps, including a sluggish campaign for vote-by-mail ballots, said former school board member David Tokofsky, a consultant for the local administrators union, which endorsed Kayser.

Among voters who cast ballots on Election Day, Kayser was the narrow favorite, according to unofficial final returns. But mail-in ballots went strongly for Rodriguez and made up just more than half of the total.

The union, Tokofsky said, also allowed Rodriguez supporters to define Kayser early on, especially on the issue of the district’s now-abandoned attempt to provide an iPad to every student, teacher and campus administrator.

Overall, Kayser was a critic of the iPad effort, but that’s not the way he was portrayed in the pro-Rodriguez mail.

Critic or not, Rodriguez said in an interview, Kayser and other board members should have provided better oversight of the technology program.

Board member Steve Zimmer, a Kayser ally, said the iPad legacy was difficult to overcome for any incumbent and was key to bringing down Galatzan as well.

But Zimmer also was dissatisfied with the campaigns in support of Kayser. He hastily organized his own low-budget political action committee, and just before the election, he sent out mailers reminding voters that Kayser was a longtime teacher and that Rodriguez backers included a Wal-Mart heir.

(The charter PAC donors included Jim Walton, a banker and son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.)

The union defended its election work, noting that Rodriguez was the only candidate opposed by the union who prevailed in races for four school board seats conducted since last August.

"Despite being massively outspent by outside billionaires, three teacher-supported candidates have been elected to the school board," UTLA said in a statement.

Also part of the push for Rodriguez was an effort to elect a Latino in District 5, which was originally carved out for that purpose. Kayser is white. That area includes neighborhoods north and east of downtown and the heavily Latino cities of southeast L.A. County.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonprofit, announced a $25,000 “Voteria” lottery prize to lure Latinos to polls. It also sent out reminder cards to voters with Latino names.

Latinos have been “suffering” at the hands of the school district, former county Supervisor Gloria Molina said in an interview.

“This is really a significant and important empowerment issue for our community,” Molina said.

The new board terms begin in July.

Twitter: @howardblume 

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