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Major charter organization says it will sit out March primary for L.A. school board seat

Major charter organization says it will sit out March primary for L.A. school board seat
Charter school backers endorsed Ref Rodriguez but are reticent about getting behind a successor for the school board member, who resigned in July after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Recent races for the Los Angeles Board of Education have been the most expensive school board contests in the nation’s history — and charter school supporters spent millions more than anyone else. But a key charter group announced Friday it will sit out a March special election to fill an empty and potentially pivotal seat.

The political arm of the California Charter Schools Assn. is not endorsing any of the 10 candidates for the seat left vacant in July, when Ref Rodriguez resigned after pleading guilty to one felony and three misdemeanors for campaign fundraising violations.

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The hopefuls are vying to represent the oddly shaped District 5, which covers some neighborhoods north of downtown L.A. as well as the cities of southeast Los Angeles County. The Board of Education, currently with six members, is split on key issues, including how to interact with privately operated charter schools, which compete with district-operated schools for students.

A spokeswoman for the charter group spoke of the many strong options for the board seat.

“There are a number of highly qualified, inspiring candidates in this race,” said Brittany Chord Parmley of CCSA Advocates. “Given the diversity, strength and depth of the field, we have decided not to endorse. ... This election is an opportunity for the entire community to engage in a dialogue about what it will take to provide an outstanding public education to all Los Angeles students.”

Close observers have described this race as especially tricky for the charter group. District 5’s boundaries were carved to elect a Latino. And in the previous election, charter backers had a strong Latino candidate in Rodriguez, the co-founder of a charter-school organization.

One obvious option, charter group executive Allison Greenwood Bajracharya, is not a Latina. Nor is Heather Repenning, a city commissioner backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, another power player. Nor is Jackie Goldberg, the pick of the teachers union, which has been the second-biggest spender in board races and has called for halting the growth of charter schools.

Backing a Latino in this district has mattered to United Teachers Los Angeles in the past, but after recent elections losses, union leaders think they have a winner in Goldberg, who has alliances within the Latino community. Goldberg previously served on the school board and the L.A. City Council as well as in the state Legislature. A wildcard for UTLA is the effect of a teachers strike planned for Jan. 10, which could work for or against the union’s endorsed candidate.

The ideal candidate in this race would be a Latina, according to some consultants.

Three Latinos in the race would be hard sells for charter supporters: School counselor Graciela Ortiz is active in UTLA. Cynthia Gonzalez works as a principal at a district-run school. Activist Rocio Rivas led protests calling for Rodriguez to resign.

The other Latino candidates are: Salvador “Chamba” Sanchez, a community college instructor; David Valdez, an L.A. County arts commissioner; Nestor Enrique Valencia, a Bell City Council member; and Ana Cubas, a community college instructor and former L.A. City Council aide who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2013.

For the charter group, no one stood out.

Four of the Latino candidates banded together to urge UTLA and the charter group to endorse one or more Latinos.

“As the ‘Charter School vs. Public School’ debate rages on and political heavyweights attempt to bully their way into installing their own,” Cubas, Sanchez, Valencia and Gonzalez said in a joint statement, “this is a familiar scenario for the Latino candidates in this race. The district has long left its Latino students behind in academic achievement and access to public education.”

Other candidates, including a couple who dropped out of the race, originally endorsed the one-and-a-half-page statement, but disagreements developed among the group.

The charter group’s neutral stance may not carry over to a likely May runoff between the top two primary finishers, regardless of their ethnicity.

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“It is naive to think this is a retreat or respite on their part,” said Juan Flecha, president of the union that represents school administrators. His union, which lacks big-money resources, has endorsed both Goldberg and Gonzalez.

Even in the primary, a pro-charter mega-donor could step in to fund a campaign. That could work better for charter supporters because the official charter group has the baggage of past ties to Rodriguez, said one political consultant, who requested anonymity because of connections to more than one candidate.

Another consultant, Mike Trujillo, who has worked mostly against UTLA-backed candidates, agreed: “It only takes some limited paperwork and a check to become a player in the primary.”

But it might make sense, he said, for the charter group to bide its time while teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl spends a lot on the teachers strike and on Goldberg in the primary.

“I suspect CCSA is gonna just get out of Alex’s way and let him spend away,” Trujillo said.

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