Charter schools vs teachers union: A high stakes L.A. school board election takes shape

The impending departure of L.A. school board president Richard Vladovic, due to term limits, has created a wide open and critical race in March for his seat on the Board of Education.
The impending departure of L.A. school board president Richard Vladovic, due to term limits, has created a wide open and critical race in March for his seat on the Board of Education.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The candidates are confirmed and the upcoming Los Angeles school board races are all but certain to make for a high-stakes election cycle that will pit teachers and their allies against backers of charter schools for influence over the nation’s second-largest school system.

The March election, in which four of the seven board seats are up, comes at a critical juncture for the L.A. Unified School District, which is struggling to make progress academically against the backdrop of budget problems and political instability. District leaders have been focused on raising low student achievement, especially among black and Latino students, and are looking for ways to help low-income families meet basic needs for students’ healthcare and food, as well as family housing.

The campaigns will be the first since a new state law gave school boards more power to deny petitions for new charter schools. Charters are privately operated, taxpayer-funded public schools, most of which are non-union. The new law amplifies the pressure on school board campaigns that have been the most expensive in that nation.


“The upcoming election is crucial for charter backers,” said Charles Kerchner, professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University, who has written extensively about L.A. Unified. “New state laws give local districts greater discretion in denying petitions for charter schools, and they limit the appeals from local school boards to the state.”

Charter advocates, however, have two potentially important advantages. They may need to win only one seat to alter the board’s balance in their favor. Also, in recent elections they’ve had the most money to spend on their endorsed candidates, thanks to wealthy individual donors.

In general, charter supporters want to protect and expand their sector, which they see as providing innovation and high quality alternatives for families, along with positive competition for traditionally managed schools.

The teachers union supports limiting charter growth and instead seeks to bolster traditional L.A. schools, which have stronger job protections than charters and a range of programs for all students.

Both sides support more funding for education, although that tenet is more central for the union, because its prescription for what ails education inevitably involves much greater funding.

The candidate field became clear in early December, after city officials confirmed the voter petition signatures required to get on the ballot. Eleven candidates qualified; three incumbents are up for reelection and one seat is open.


The political arm of the California Charter School Assn. has not yet endorsed candidates and declined to answer questions about the March election, offering instead a brief statement.

“As part of our endorsement process, school board candidates are invited to participate in an interview process with charter school parents and school leaders,” said Emily Bertelli of CCSA Advocates. “Those same parents and school leaders then make the ultimate decisions on candidate endorsements.”

The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has already made endorsements in all four races.

South L.A. seat wide open

District 7, which takes in portions of South L.A. south to San Pedro, is open for the first time since 2007, as term limits have forced the retirement of Richard Vladovic, a prominent local figure who has maneuvered between positions favored by the two main factions, neither of which was willing to take him on.

A likely pick for the pro-charter side in District 7 is Mike Lansing, chief executive of the Boys & Girls Club of the Los Angeles Harbor. Lansing was Vladovic’s predecessor. During two previous terms, Lansing saw himself as independent, although he relied on campaign support from teachers union opponents. For the charter side, he offers someone who has won elections.


The teachers union is going with Patricia Castellanos, the workforce development deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

The other District 7 candidates are: Silke M. Bradford, who has worked mostly in traditional school systems, including overseeing charters, but who also has experience with a charter organization; Tanya Ortiz Franklin, a member of the leadership team at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages 18 L.A. Unified campuses on behalf of the district under existing union contracts, and Lydia A. Gutierrez, a second-grade teacher in Long Beach who has run unsuccessfully for this in the past.

Battle for West Valley seat

A pitched battle is expected to unfold in District 3, in the west San Fernando Valley.

The teachers union supports one-term incumbent Scott Schmerelson, a retired principal who also is closely allied with the union that represents school administrators.

Third-district voters in this relatively conservative part of Los Angeles have past records of throwing out school board incumbents, which could hurt Schmerelson.

The likely beneficiary of strong charter support would be Marilyn Koziatek, who directs the community outreach department at Granada Hills Charter High School. The other challenger is Elizabeth Bartels-Badger, a Democratic Party activist and local business owner who has run for political office several times.


Two incumbents win union support

UTLA has already endorsed the other two incumbents — Jackie Goldberg and George McKenna.

A union sweep would build on the political momentum of January’s six-day teachers’ strike, in which the union won commitments to smaller class sizes, limiting charter growth and services to address the broad needs of children and families. But union President Alex Caputo-Pearl is well aware that one loss could shift the board’s direction.

“We see these board elections as crucial given the revised charter laws but also to enforce what we won in the strike,” Caputo-Pearl said.

Charter advocates apparently have conceded District 1, which covers much of south and southwest L.A. McKenna has no opponent.

Political insiders and consultants who are not authorized to speak for the charter side suggest that the charter faction also may concede District 5 to Goldberg, who returned to the board with a landslide victory in a May special election.

Goldberg has one opponent: Christina Martinez Duran, a semi-retired, long-time educator who has worked in recent years as a volunteer professional evaluator for schools seeking accreditation.


District 5 takes in neighborhoods north of downtown and then cuts a narrow path east of downtown to the cities of southeast L.A. County. With only two candidates, the District 5 race will be settled in the March primary.

The contests in District 3 and 7, which have more than two candidates, will be settled in March if one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote. If not, then the top two finishers will face each other in a November runoff.

Despite the overarching politics, the last few months have been a period of “relative calm,” with L.A. Unified officials focused on the tasks at hand, said UCLA education professor John Rogers.

“It is possible that the upcoming elections will unsettle things again,” he said. “But a more likely result will be reinvigorated public discussion about what resources Los Angeles schools need, how these resources should be distributed, and where the dollars will be generated.”