Setback for school board candidate

Zahniser and Blume are Times staff writers.

Ben Austin, a front-runner for a hotly contested Los Angeles school board seat, has failed to qualify for the city ballot because he turned in too few valid signatures on a qualifying petition.

Austin, a former deputy mayor under Richard Riordan and a longtime political consultant, chose the March school board race to move from behind-the-scenes player to elected official.

In a recent e-mail to supporters, he spoke of “probably” having the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, director/activist Rob Reiner and Riordan.

But his campaign has stumbled early, perhaps fatally.


Shortly after 5:30 p.m. Monday, city election workers posted an online bulletin that labeled Austin’s petitions with an “I” for insufficient.

Austin turned in his signatures Wednesday, the last day for submitting petitions.

Three candidates in other races who filed earlier had time to gather more valid signatures after they also submitted insufficient petitions.

To qualify for the ballot, Austin would need to contest the city clerk’s findings, said attorney Fred Woocher, who specializes in election law. “That’s his challenge right now, to demonstrate that he has enough signatures. If he doesn’t, there’s not much that can be done at this point.”

School board candidates must submit 500 valid signatures from the district in which they are running, said Michael Stryer, a Fairfax High School teacher and one of two candidates who have qualified in the race to replace Los Angeles Unified school board member Marlene Canter. Her District 4 stretches from Hollywood to the Westside and north to the southwest San Fernando Valley.

“The signature gathering process is trickier than one might assume because you have to be very detail oriented,” Stryer said.

Austin would not comment when reached by telephone Monday evening.

“I can’t talk right now,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.”

Charter school operator Steve Barr expressed dismay regarding Austin’s apparent setback. “If it’s true, I would be disappointed because I know Ben, and I know he’s in it for all the right reasons,” said Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools.

As Barr’s employee, Austin helped circulate charter-school petitions two years ago among teachers at Locke High School in South Los Angeles.

The effort led to Green Dot securing control of Locke High.

Austin has also helped Barr develop the fledgling Los Angeles Parents Union, which Barr intended as an activist counterweight to parent organizations closely associated with the school district.

When the former director of the parents union resigned, Austin stepped into that role in February. Austin, who has a 2-year-old daughter, works as a top advisor to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.

The other candidate who has qualified is Marshall High teacher and community activist Steve Zimmer. He’s obtained the endorsement of United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union.

Election officials are still checking the signatures for 11 prospective candidates, including one other person hoping to replace Canter, parent activist Bill Ring. Eight have qualified so far to run for mayor, including the incumbent, Villaraigosa, and attorney Walter Moore.

Five people have filed to run for city attorney, and six are seeking to fill the seat of departing Councilman Jack Weiss.