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Will the L.A. school board runoff revert to the familiar mudslinging, big-spending format?

L.A. school board member Nick Melvoin bumps elbows with a school staffer.
L.A. school board member Nick Melvoin greets library aide Franny Parrish during a school visit in West Hollywood in a 2021 file photo. Melvoin is poised to win reelection based on results from Tuesday’s primary
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Tuesday’s primary left the outcome of two Los Angeles school board races in doubt, setting the stage for a general election campaign that could prove less polite and more expensive.

The most financially competitive race will be in District 2, where voters must replace Monica Garcia, who is stepping down because of term limits. In that contest, Rocio Rivas, who finished first in the primary, will face Maria Brenes.

For the record:

3:48 p.m. June 9, 2022An earlier version of this post misspelled a school board candidate’s last name. The correct name is: Gentille Barkhordarian.

“I really did receive a lot of positive energy and support all throughout our district,” Rivas said at a campaign gathering Tuesday night. “People are out there — invested — and really want to be there for our public schools.”

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“We were focused on the work of talking to voters, and educating them and inspiring them,” Brenes said. “It’s up to the electorate and the electorate wants us to keep going.”

District 2 includes downtown, surrounding neighborhoods and communities to the north and east.

In “semifinal” results posted Wednesday, Rivas had 38% of the vote and Brenes 32% in a contest among four candidates. The order of finish surprised some because Brenes had more financial backing, but each candidate benefited from a big-spending independent campaign. Analysts view the race as a toss-up.

In District 6, in a somewhat unexpected turn, school board President Kelly Gonez landed in a runoff against Cleveland High School Spanish teacher Marvin Rodriguez. To win outright on Tuesday, Gonez would have needed a majority of votes in her east San Fernando Valley district. Her tally was 45% in a contest with two challengers. Rodriguez had 31%; school police Sgt. Jess Arana had 24%.

Gonez had been endorsed by both the teachers union and charter advocates.

In District 4, one-term incumbent Nick Melvoin achieved a majority with 55% of the vote, finishing well ahead of teacher Tracey Schroeder and parent Gentille Barkhordarian. It’s extremely unlikely that Melvoin’s tally would fall below 50%, even though many votes remain to be counted. District 4 stretches to the Westside from Hollywood and into parts of the west San Fernando Valley.

The mudslinging that has accompanied most recent contested L.A. Unified board races was absent leading into the primary. So was the financial clout of the California Charter Schools Assn. and its allies, who in recent times have spent the most and dished out much of the dirt. Although the charter group’s political wing endorsed Brenes, it launched no independent campaign.

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Instead the big spending was done by United Teachers Los Angeles — the traditional foe of the charter group — and Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the largest number of nonteaching district employees.

UTLA backed Rivas; Local 99 backed Brenes.

Each union campaigned positively, touting virtues rather than finding fault or publicizing shady allegations.

Teachers union President Cecily Myart-Cruz said Tuesday night that she hoped the upbeat tone would continue, especially in a contest between two women of color. But she added that she’s concerned that it won’t.

Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias declined to comment on the possibility of a tone change, but for one night at least the politeness continued.

Arias focused on praising Brenes, the founder of InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit student and family advocacy group. Myart-Cruz praised Rivas, a senior policy and community outreach aide for school board member Jackie Goldberg.

Among all the candidates, Rivas has spoken most critically of charter schools, and she would be replacing Garcia, a longtime protector of charters, which are mostly nonunion and compete for students with district-operated schools.

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Brenes sidesteps the discussion of charters; she said her focus is on providing high-quality district schools.

The backers of Brenes will be tempted to change tack, said Dan Schnur, who teachers political communications at USC and UC Berkeley.

“The incentive for a candidate running behind to go negative is always much stronger than it is for a front-runner,” said Schnur. “In football, quarterbacks don’t throw long passes when their team is two touchdowns ahead.”

All the same, the distinctions between the candidates on major issues are more subtle than in the past.

“There have been some very stark differences in L.A. school board races over the years,” Schnur said. “This one is the shades-of-gray runoff. Both sides have their preferences but they’re not nearly as emotionally invested.”

A wild card could be retired businessman Bill Bloomfield, who spent $1.6 million on a successful independent campaign to help Melvoin avoid a runoff. The spending included negative ads against Melvoin’s opponents, who reported that they had raised no money whatsoever.

Bloomfield’s money has been a major factor in L.A. board races in recent years. His spending typically aligns with the charter-endorsed candidates although he considers himself an education advocate rather than a charter advocate. He has been willing to adopt the hard-knuckle politics of negative advertising to get the outcome he feels is best.

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Bloomfield said he thinks highly of Brenes, seeing her as a positive continuation of Garcia’s work.

In District 6, Gonez raised more than six times as much as all of her opponents combined, but the independent spending on her behalf was anemic compared with the other races. Melvoin received 33 times as much help.

“It’s a surprise that board President Kelly Gonez got caught in a run-off, especially by a novice,” said former school board member David Tokofsky, who’s a consultant for the administrators union. “But it shows that the teacher label is worth 15 points by itself.”

The last time a school board president failed to win in the primary, he ultimately lost. That was in 2017 in District 4, when Steve Zimmer lost to Melvoin. And in District 6, Gonez’s predecessor, Monica Ratliff, was — like Rodriguez — a low-funded teacher who beat much better funded opponents. Arana, the third-place finisher, said he hopes his backers will support Rodriguez.

But there are key differences between the situation of Gonez and these precedents. Zimmer had to face a multimillion-dollar negative campaign by charter allies. Ratliff was running for an open seat.

Gonez still retains major endorsers — who could help out.

On Wednesday, she said she was “humbled” that so many voters had selected her: “I am excited to see that our vision resonated with many voters.”

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Rodriguez said he would continue to engage voters: “This primary showed that in our communities, a candidate needs more than just piles of money to earn the opportunity to represent them.”

Bloomfield, for one, is confident of Gonez’s prospects.

“Kelly has all sides behind her,” Bloomfield said Wednesday. “She’s going to win, and I think she deserves to win.”

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