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In two tight races for L.A. Unified board, President Kelly Gonez and Maria Brenes lead

Outgoing L.A. Unified board member Monica Garcia stands behind Supt. Alberto Carvalho
L.A. school board members elected Tuesday will oversee schools headed by Supt. Alberto Carvalho, second from left. In District 2, two candidates battled to replace termed-out Monica Garcia, left.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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In two tight races for the Los Angeles Board of Education, Maria Brenes, a community group leader with broad financial backing, was leading Wednesday morning in a bid for an open seat, while school board President Kelly Gonez was ahead in her campaign for reelection.

Votes are still being counted, with the next update expected Friday.

The contest between Brenes — the longtime leader of the local group InnerCity Struggle — and senior school board advisor Rocio Rivas was hard fought from the start, with both candidates underwritten by financial backers who ultimately resorted to negative ads after first using only positive messages.

Brenes’ big-money donors included charter school supporters and Local 99 of the Services Employees International Union, whose members include cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and teacher aides. Rivas’ big-spending backer was the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

On Wednesday morning, Brenes had 50.8% of the vote and Rivas 49.2%. The margin of votes was 852 in a district that includes downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, principally to the east.

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In the other contest, the margin between Gonez and Cleveland High School Spanish teacher Marvin Rodriguez was a surprise. Gonez had claimed all the major endorsements, had a spending advantage of 47 to 1 and benefited from more than $450,000 in independent spending.

By Wednesday morning, the race was still tight for the seat representing most of the eastern San Fernando Valley.

Gonez had 50.3% and Rodriguez 49.7%. The margin of votes was 298.

Late Tuesday night, Gonez thanked supporters and said she expected to “have good news soon” but did not claim victory.

The outcome of the battle between Rivas and Brenes could influence the direction of the seven-member governing body for the nation’s second-largest school system.

Rivas said she hopes to stop charter school growth and increase oversight of these privately managed public schools. In contrast, a top priority of Brenes is to shift more funding to campuses with the largest percentage of students who live in high-poverty areas affected by violence.

The runoff between Rivas, 49, a senior aide to school board member Jackie Goldberg, and Brenes, 46, the longtime director of the Boyle Heights-based group InnerCity Struggle, had drawn in two unions and a pair of businessmen — who combined to hurl more than $8.4 million into the race.

All four candidates had pledged to address a dizzying array of challenges — declining enrollment, teen drug abuse, school security concerns, pandemic setbacks and wide achievement gaps affecting Black and Latino students — and have strikingly similar views on many issues.

But especially in District 2 — the contest between Rivas and Brenes — the campaign was driven largely by the candidates’ stances on the years-old debate over charter schools, plus the extent of backing they have received from unions.

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Brenes by far raised more money than Rivas — and also benefited from a much larger independent campaign on her behalf. In all, independent spending in support of Brenes surpassed $5.1 million, while United Teachers Los Angeles spent close to $2.9 million in support of Rivas.

Businessmen Reed Hastings and Bill Bloomfield also poured $434,689 into a negative campaign against Rivas, hoping to erode a 14-percentage-point edge she held in the June primary, when four candidates were on the ballot.

The effort was substantially successful — enough so that the teachers union began to run negative ads about Brenes, although the union did not list the ads as negative spending in required disclosures through Tuesday.

Downtown and neighborhoods to the east have long been the political stronghold of Monica Garcia, who could not run again because of term limits. Garcia was known as a strong defender of charter schools — which are privately operated, mostly nonunion and supported by public school funding — and a key ally of Local 99. Garcia also worked closely with outside activists, including Brenes, over such issues as eliminating school police and steering more money into schools serving students they concluded had the highest needs, because of poverty, neighborhood violence and other factors.

Brenes embraced Garcia’s legacy — and largely inherited her supporters — but wanted to avoid being pulled into the charters-versus-teachers union divide.

Rivas, in contrast, spoke directly of wanting to curtail the growth, influence and independence of charter schools whenever possible — although their rights to share public school space and funding are rooted in state law.

Rivas’ background included working in the division that oversees charter schools for L.A. Unified.

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Meet the candidates and learn the positions of the candidates for two seats on L.A. Board of Education.

Oct. 31, 2022

In District 6, in the east San Fernando Valley, high school teacher Rodriguez, 43, tried to unseat Gonez, who was first elected to the school board in 2017.

Gonez was instrumental in the recent hiring of Supt. Alberto Carvalho, the longtime leader of the Miami-Dade school system.

While Gonez, 34, collected all the major endorsements, including that of the teachers union, the labor group did not spend significantly on her behalf. Even so, with $500,000 raised, Gonez had an overwhelming fundraising advantage — Rodriguez raised just $11,000. In addition, Local 99 and the political action committee of Netflix founder Hastings and retired businessman Bloomfield combined to spend close to $400,000 on her behalf.

In the June primary, Gonez, with 48% of the vote, had come close to winning reelection outright.

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