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Two challengers, one incumbent, finish first in L.A. Board of Education races

Incumbents who faced challengers with money behind them fared poorly in L.A. school board races

In final, unofficial election returns Tuesday night, two challengers defeated incumbents to win seats on the Los Angeles Board of Education

In District 5, well-funded challenger Ref Rodriguez bested one-term incumbent Bennett Kayser, winning with nearly 54% of the vote. That area includes neighborhoods north and east of downtown, as well as the cities of southeast L.A. County.

"It looks good," Rodriguez told a crowd of supporters before the final results were tallied. "I decided to run because I knew the system wasn't working for all kids."

In District 3, which covers the west San Fernando Valley, challenger Scott Schmerelson finished ahead of two-term incumbent Tamar Galatzan. His lead solidified over the evening and he ended with about 55% of ballots cast.

In District 7, two-term incumbent Richard Vladovic maintained a clear plurality over Lydia Gutierrez, claiming 56% of the vote. District 7 stretches from South Los Angeles to the L.A. Harbor.

The results will affect the direction of the nation’s second-largest school system. The next school board will choose a superintendent to run the L.A. Unified School District and deal with thorny issues such as a new teacher evaluation system and graduation requirements.

The campaigns in the two most expensive races were dominated by independent spending. In all, outside groups have poured in $5.1 million, compared with under $1 million spent by campaigns controlled by the candidates, according to reports filed through Monday.

The contest drawing the most attention and the most dollars was the Kayser/Rodriguez race.

Kayser was backed by the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which spent more than $1 million to keep him in office.

Rodriguez co-founded an organization that operates charter schools, and benefited from strong support by a group representing charters.

That group, California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, put more than $2 million into this race ($2.4 million overall) through Monday, the most of any outside group.

Charters are independently operated and free from some regulations that govern traditional public schools. Most are nonunion.

Kayser has been the board’s most persistent voice opposing the continued growth of charter schools in L.A., which has the most charters, 211, of any district in the country. About 15% of L.A. Unified students are enrolled in those campuses.

Both sides assembled grass-roots operations to make calls and knock on doors. The teachers union has been especially effective in gathering volunteers in the past, while its opponent relied significantly on paid canvassers.

But charter advocates insisted that they have caught up, by involving parents of students in charters as well as the students themselves in working politically for their schools.

At Rodriguez's campaign headquarters in Highland Park on Tuesday evening, Miquitzli Herrera, 15, had been on the phones since 8:30 am, calling volunteers and voters.

"I really admire what he's done in his years of educating people, opening up all of those schools and trying to help kids get an education," said Miquitzli, who attends a Pasadena private school. "It's very admirable and inspiring."

"If we have Dr. Ref Rodriguez he'll make the schools better," said Sabrina Gastelum, 13, another charter student making calls to voters. "We've already read a lot about him and I like what he's about."

At the posting of the early returns, the crowd erupted in cheers and exchanged hugs.

"Si se puede" (Yes we can), people shouted; others stood to snap pictures of the computer projection of the results.

Many volunteers also participated in the campaign for Kayser. His supporters said they are concerned that charters, by enrolling so many district students, are sapping the district funding base and making it more difficult to provide services, including for students who are harder and more expensive to educate.

The Galatzan/Schmerelson race also featured a face-off between the union, which backed Schmerelson, a retired principal, and Galatzan, who had support from the charter group.

In this race, Galatzan also received substantial backing from another political action committee, Great Public Schools Los Angeles. This PAC drew on many of the same donors as a PAC that associated in recent elections with former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In the Vladovic/Gutierrez race, Vladovic was endorsed by all three big-spending PACs, but none of them devoted comparable resources to this race. Gutierrez is a Long Beach Unified elementary teacher.

Low voter turnout was expected; in most areas, the L.A. Unified contest was the only one on the ballot.

For more education news, follow @howardblume 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE:

12:01 a.m.: This post was updated to reflect the final unofficial election returns.

11:28 p.m. Tuesday: This post was updated to reflect later returns that showed the same two challengers leading, but with Rodriguez's lead shrinking and Schmerelson's increasing.

10:30 p.m. Tuesday: This post was updated to reflect the continued strong lead by Ref Rodriguez and that Miquitzli Herrera attends a private school in Pasadena.

This story was first published at 9:50 p.m. Tuesday.

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