The real battle for control of the Los Angeles schools began Saturday -- almost unnoticed -- as the one-week filing period closed for candidates to enter next year’s school board elections. And the biggest news isn’t who signed up, but a possible rift between two powerhouse allies that could affect the path of future reforms.
If Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the teachers union -- steadfast fellow travelers for years -- endorsed all the same candidates, their slate would be seemingly unbeatable. But that appears unlikely.
Such a parting of the ways could mean political survival for the three incumbents seeking reelection.
And the mayor could once again be frustrated in his efforts to exert controlling authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
It wasn’t supposed to play out this way.
For one thing, United Teachers Los Angeles helped compose the law giving L.A.'s mayor substantial authority over the schools. And UTLA’s support proved instrumental in getting the legislation passed this summer.
But that was then.
Now the union leadership and the mayor have different priorities.
First and foremost, the mayor wants a school board that will support the letter and spirit of the law, Assembly Bill 1381. Four of seven board seats are up for grabs in March. The mayor is expected to oppose all three incumbents, in no small measure because they opposed the bill and support litigation to overturn it.
Villaraigosa has frequently accused board members of impeding reform. His legislation not only weakens their authority but strips them of their individual staffs.
“The goal is to have a school board that supports reform and the implementation of AB 1381,” said Nathan James, spokesman for the mayor’s school reform committee, to whom Villaraigosa referred all questions. The legislation takes effect Jan. 1, pending the legal challenge.
The union is more focused on getting a sizable pay increase for teachers; their contract expired July 1. UTLA also wants to elect a more “teacher-friendly” board majority and win a significant role for teachers in running schools. In addition, the leadership hopes for a board that will publicly reject major components of No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s education reform act.
“This school board election should not be a referendum on AB 1381,” said union Vice President Joshua Pechthalt. “People of goodwill could have had -- and still could have -- differences of opinion. I don’t see that as a line in the sand for support.”
Possible strong conflict
The most obvious divergence could be in District 3, which stretches across the west and south San Fernando Valley and is represented by Jon Lauritzen.
Potentially strong challengers include city prosecutor Tamar Galatzan, who has close ties to the city’s business community, and Bea O. Stotzer, a property manager instrumental in helping develop a project that includes a charter school and affordable housing. Both have potential funding sources beyond the mayor and UTLA.
The union has long and tight relations with one-term incumbent Lauritzen, who has consistently sided with UTLA.
“Jon’s been a strong supporter of ours,” Pechthalt said. “If UTLA does support Jon, I hope that the mayor sees that, in spite of Jon’s opposition to AB 1381, he’s a good guy.”
It was Lauritzen who pushed hardest -- and successfully -- to reverse this fall’s involuntary transfer from Crenshaw High of teacher and local union leader Alex Caputo-Pearl. Union officials cite the incident as crucially relevant.
There are starkly contrasting interpretations of the matter. One is that the restoration of a popular and well-meaning activist is nothing less than justice triumphant over a school bureaucracy that disdains genuine community involvement. The alternative reading is that management was right in the first instance to move a disruptive teacher from a troubled school but gave in to a school-board majority unwilling or afraid to stand up to the union.
District 1 board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who represents the Crenshaw area, sided with management regarding Caputo-Pearl, and that’s one reason the union leadership became disenchanted after having endorsed her in 2003.
The mayor’s office is at least as cool toward her, especially after LaMotte, who is African American, suggested that Villaraigosa’s efforts were more about raiding the school district budget than improving schools. And she compared his plan to oversee a group of schools to the infamous Tuskegee experiments, in which doctors studied the effects of syphilis on black patients rather than curing them.
What’s less clear is whether UTLA and the mayor can agree on an alternative to LaMotte. One challenger, Johnathan Williams, could prove less dependent on either. Co-founder of the Accelerated Charter School in South Los Angeles, he is a favorite son among the wealthy backers of the charter school movement.
There’s also uncertainty over the union’s direction on three-term incumbent David Tokofsky, who has missed no opportunity to criticize the mayor’s intervention plan. Tokofsky, a former history teacher, represents District 5, whose boundaries cut a tortured path from Eagle Rock to South Gate.
The union leadership considers Tokofsky a sometime friend who is too close to the district’s central administration.
Tokofsky insists he’s been good for teachers. In past runs, he’s won UTLA’s endorsement -- based on the vote of the union’s House of Representatives -- every time, even when top union leaders have opposed him. In other words, even if the union leadership sided with the mayor against Tokofsky, it’s far from given that the members would go along.
That point was underscored last month when union members bucked their officers by voting to withdraw official support for the Villaraigosa schools law. The referendum put UTLA in an awkward position: Namely, is it “pro-union” for a candidate to be for or against the law?
Candidates who have received scrutiny from the mayor’s office for possible endorsement include Luis Sanchez, whose nonprofit organization has organized Eastside students and parents around education issues, and Yolie Flores Aguilar, chief executive of the L.A. County Children’s Planning Council. She lost a close board race against Tokofsky in 1999. Another notable entrant is Scott Folsom, president of a major district parents group and a board member of the committee that oversees school construction.
District 7, which runs from Watts to the harbor, has no incumbent, with the retirement of Mike Lansing. But once again, reaching common ground with the mayor could be difficult for UTLA. Union leaders have already identified three candidates they could favor: Jesus M. Escandon, a former UTLA chapter chairman who works for the California Teachers Assn.; Neal B. Kleiner, a former L.A. Unified principal; and former West Covina Unified School District Supt. Richard A. Vladovic, who also had a long career at L.A. Unified.
All of them want support from anywhere they can get it. But Kleiner’s pitch, for example, seems more aimed at teachers, while Vladovic and Escandon are careful to choose words unlikely to offend Villaraigosa.
Two other candidates have government experience: former Los Angeles Public Works Commissioner Woody Fleming and Gardena Councilwoman Rachel C. Johnson.
This potential divide between the mayor and the union has roots in the alliance that brought them together through the mayor’s school legislation in the first place. The mayor originally sought full authority over the school system, and key Villaraigosa allies backed his bid precisely because they wanted to limit union influence over the school board. In the final version of the law, Villaraigosa settled for power sharing to avoid the risk of getting nothing.
For its part, UTLA settled for power sharing to stave off a later bid for full mayoral control. Union leaders also note that the law has language supporting teachers as partners in sharing the power.
UTLA’s Pechthalt still sees potential for common cause with the mayor’s team. “In the best of all worlds they’d support the candidates we support,” he said.
One way or another, Villaraigosa will be following in the footsteps of former Mayor Richard Riordan, who used his bully pulpit to raise money for his own “reform” candidates but had mixed success in getting them elected. In some races, he and the union endorsed the same person, although that period is remembered more for its battles between Riordan and UTLA.
Riordan said in an interview that all parties ought to put ideological and political alliances aside as much as possible.
“You have to get the best and brightest candidates,” he said. “People who will be their own bosses.”
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School board candidates
School board member
Accelerated Charter School
Profession: publisher of
Debra L. Clark
Profession: runs nonprofit for special-needs families
Profession: city prosecutor
School board member
William Charles McMahon
Age: not available
Profession: college instructor
Bea O. Stotzer
Profession: Chief executive, property management firm
Yolie Flores Aguilar
Profession: Chief executive, county Children’s Planning Council
Profession: field services
Profession: president, parents association
Profession: runs education/housing nonprofit
School board member
Jesus M. Escandon
Profession: field representative, California Teachers Assn.
Profession: street services
Rachel C. Johnson
Neal B. Kleiner
Profession: Retired principal
Richard A. Vladovic
Joey Mandingo White
Profession: loan consultant
*As listed in city filings
Source: City of Los Angeles filings; Times reporting.