Runoffs likely in union-versus-charter battle over L.A. school board

L.A. school board member Scott Schmerelson
L.A. school board member Scott Schmerelson will probably face a November runoff.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Jackie Goldberg appears headed to reelection on the Los Angeles Board of Education, but little has been settled with certainty in the hard-fought, expensive and pivotal contests to influence the direction of the nation’s second-largest school system.

With many ballots yet to be counted, two races seem on their way toward a November runoff, but it is not yet clear who will be in those contests.

In the west San Fernando Valley, incumbent Scott Schmerelson was leading in ongoing tallies, making him a good bet to be in a runoff against either Marilyn Koziatek or Elizabeth Bartels-Badger.

For a board seat that includes parts of South L.A. and the Harbor area, four candidates are locked in a tight contest over the two spots in the runoff. Leading the pack Wednesday was Patricia Castellanos, but many votes were yet to be tallied.

The outcome in only one race was unequivocal, as incumbent George McKenna was the only candidate on the ballot for a seat representing portions of south and southwest L.A.

Throughout the campaign season, these contests were a battle between supporters of charter schools and the teachers union — and that scenario is likely to continue until the November general election. The stakes are high for both sides on a board that has divided closely over issues affecting charter schools.

The four seats up in this election have all been held by board members friendly to the teachers union — and the union has been campaigning to keep it that way. Charter advocates are concerned about new state laws that give school boards more authority to limit charter growth and have been campaigning for candidates more likely to support their schools.


Charters are privately operated and compete with the school system for students. Most charters are nonunion.

“The new rules for charter approval would let a pro-union board cut back on charter growth in L.A. in a big way, but the unions, to take advantage of that opportunity, can’t afford to lose either of these last two seats,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at USC and Pepperdine. “This is going to be a classic charter-versus-union faceoff. Both sides are all in.”

Each side has put a positive spin on the inconclusive results.

The union focused on two endorsed candidates — Goldberg and McKenna — winning seats outright. Two others — Schmerelson and Castellanos — are sitting for now with first-place primary finishes in contests headed toward a runoff. These results, union officials said, come after charter advocates far outspent United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians.

“UTLA ran the most robust ground game in our history, proving the power of people versus money,” the union said in a statement. “While the charter lobby put hate ads in the mail, we put people in the streets, walking and talking to voters.”

Gregory McGinity, the head of a pro-charter political action committee, cited the failure of an outright majority-vote win by the union-backed Schmerelson and Castellanos as boding well for their side. Schmerelson, he said, was in clear jeopardy.

“When an incumbent officeholder gets barely over 40% in a contested primary, that incumbent is in a lot of trouble,” said McGinity, executive director of California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates.

McGinity also noted that Goldberg’s margin of victory was likely to be much smaller than last May, when she won a special election to fill the last year of an open seat.

“There’s clearly a significant number of families that challenge her vision of where LAUSD is going,” said McGinity, “and her desire to close down high-performing schools,” a reference to the charter sector he represents.

The campaign against Goldberg barely referred to charters schools. Instead, it raised inaccurate claims that Goldberg opposes gun control and wants to cut funding for schools. The high-cost mailer attack also asserted that Goldberg doesn’t care about Latino students.

“I think I had a deep enough base that even with someone spending $1.2 million against me it didn’t turn everyone off,” said Goldberg, referring to expenditures by Bill Bloomfield, a major past contributor to CCSA Advocates.

Bloomfield also spent $2.9 million in the South L.A.-Harbor area race. His two favored candidates — Tanya Ortiz Franklin and Mike Lansing — remain in contention along with Castellanos for the runoff. That spending included more than $580,000 in a negative campaign against Castellanos. Also still in the running as votes continue to be tallied is Long Beach second grade teacher Lydia Gutiérrez, who had no notable financial support. She was the target of a nearly quarter-million dollar negative ad campaign by Bloomfield.