Voters advise L.A. Unified on preferred campus takeovers


Elections in Los Angeles schools Tuesday had no age restrictions, no citizenship requirements. Voters could cast ballots more than once if they had more than one child or if they dashed to another polling place.

Welcome to democracy and school reform -- L.A. Unified-style.

A new school board policy, approved in August, allowed groups from inside and outside the Los Angeles Unified School District to bid for control of 12 persistently low-performing campuses and 18 new ones. Parents, teachers, students -- and anyone else who desired -- voted for their favored plans to run the 30 campuses with close to 40,000 students.

The Board of Education will make the final decision for every school, but board members will review the results.

“This is our opportunity to hear directly from the people who will most be affected by the decisions that we . . . will make in just a few weeks,” said board member Steve Zimmer, who pushed for the school elections.

Bidders for the campuses include teachers -- frequently working with administrators -- as well as charter-school organizations and other outside groups.

Charters -- which are independently operated and exempt from some rules, including union contracts -- mostly pursued the new campuses. They have argued that they can more effectively run them than the nation’s second-largest school system.

Another bidder is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who seeks to expand the number of schools managed by his nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

The bidding process also drew furious participation by groups of teachers from the very schools that were deemed the district’s worst.

The district paid the League of Women Voters $50,000 to run the elections. Seven different ballot pools will be tallied separately.

Parents fall into four groups: those whose child attends that school; those whose child will be old enough to attend that school next year; those who could enroll their child in 2011 or later; and all other “unverified” parents, such as those from charter and private schools.

In any category, parents get one vote per student.

There’s also a “community” category that could include almost anyone.

Eighth-graders reportedly voted at Sutter Middle School in Canoga Park and at Foshay Learning Center south of downtown. The district acknowledged that elementary students probably voted as well. Questionable voters were added to the community pool.

At a few schools, staff allegedly entered polling places and guided parents’ votes, according to charters, the mayor’s nonprofit and several parents.

District officials said they immediately intervened to stop improper electioneering when isolated instances came to their attention.

Leading up to the vote, incomplete or distorted information emerged from many quarters. Teachers, some observers said, appeared to have the edge.

“The balance of power at a school is so overwhelmingly toward people inside a school,” said Maria Casillas, president of Families in Schools, a nonprofit that moderated several pre-election forums. She said teachers took advantage of Latino parents unused to the voting process.

Teachers also simply worked hard -- canvassing neighborhoods around schools for weeks.

At Strathern Street Elementary in North Hollywood, the polling place for a new elementary school nearby, few parents expressed an affinity for nondistrict bidders.

Ana De Jesus worried that charter schools would reject disabled students or English-language learners.

Charter operators, which would be required to accept neighborhood students, vigorously contested such characterizations.

But teachers cited the comparatively low percentage of disabled students and English learners in many charter schools. And the parent voters include many relatively satisfied customers.

“The people who work here are very friendly, very kind,” said Syuzanna Nikogosyan, who has children in second and third grade at Strathern, where test scores rose strongly this year but remain low.

Also in line to vote was district literacy coach Maria Silva, who confessed mixed feelings. She described the district plan -- developed among teachers, administrators and parents -- as “valid” and said it was shared openly, which offered a degree of accountability.

“On the other hand,” she added, “we have had all these schools. So what’s the plan in all the regular schools?”

Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.