How L.A.’s school board election became the most expensive in U.S. history


Charter school supporters and unions spent nearly $15 million to battle each other in last week's Los Angeles Board of Education races, which crossed the finish line as the most expensive school board election in U.S. history.

With the results, charter forces for the first time won a majority on the Board of Education, a shift that could bring big changes to the district. This came from an election like no other, fueled by big-money donations from across the country, giving what are typically local campaigns a national significance.

It’s an oversimplification to say the outcome was all about money, but charters spent more ($9.7 million compared with $5.2 million), and their candidates finished first in both races on Tuesday’s ballot.

In District 4, challenger Nick Melvoin finished well in front of incumbent Steve Zimmer. In District 6, Kelly Gonez was in first, ahead of Imelda Padilla. That race is close and some votes remain to be counted, but Gonez is widely expected to hold on. If she does, charter-friendly board members would make up a majority on the seven-member school board for the first time.

How much did this election cost per vote?

Based on spending since the March primary, pro-charter outside groups and individuals spent $144 for every vote cast for one of the charter-endorsed candidates. Unions spent $81 for every vote received by teachers union-backed candidates.

Nearly $15 million in outside spending poured in to the LAUSD elections

City records show outside spending by pro-charter groups topped pro-union groups nearly 2 to 1.

Top Charter Groups Amount
Top Charter GroupsParent Teacher Alliance Amount$5,144,716
Top Charter GroupsCalifornia Charter Schools Assn. Advocates Amount$2,837,614
Top Charter GroupsLA Students 4 Change Amount$1,325,324
Top Charter GroupsMajor individual donors Amount$230,785
Top Charter GroupsSpeak UP - Supporting Nick Melvoin Amount$111,547
Top Charter GroupsStudents for Education Reform Amount$95,964
Top Charter GroupsCharter Total Amount$9,695,351
Top Union Groups* Amount
Top Union Groups*United Teachers Los Angeles and affiliated PACs Amount$4,128,206
Top Union Groups*Valley Voters United Amount$617,362
Top Union Groups*Labor Federation and affiliated PACs Amount$398,667
Top Union Groups*Union Total Amount$5,221,273

* Service Employees International spent money on both sides: $169,972 for charter-backed Monica Garcia; $51,494 for candidates endorsed by teachers unions.

Source: Los Angeles Ethics Commission

Which individuals or groups spent the most money?

More information will be revealed with ongoing disclosure filings, but Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix and a Democrat, appears to lead the pack with nearly $7 million donated since last September to California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates. Hastings, like others, does not appear in city filings as a contributor because he gave to the charter association. That association then spent money on the campaign or transferred funds to other pro-charter groups.

One of these affiliated groups is Parent Teacher Alliance. This is not the PTA, but an affiliate “sponsored” by CCSA Advocates with a name that, on campaign mailers, resembles the better-known and nonpartisan Parent Teacher Assn. That PTA has complained about this similarity.

In city filings, Parent Teacher Alliance ($5.14 million) tops the list of outside spenders. Its money comes largely, perhaps entirely, from CCSA Advocates, which reported transferring $4.53 million to Parent Teacher Alliance in the last four months of 2016.

A small group of wealthy individuals and their foundations are the ultimate sources of funding for the pro-charter groups.

Why did students spend more than a million dollars to defeat incumbent school board President Steve Zimmer?

They did not. The group “LA Students 4 Change” is a pro-charter political action committee managed by political consultant John Shallman and working in conjunction with CCSA Advocates. In an interview with Times columnist Steve Lopez, Shallman explained that his team recruited a group of high school students, who appeared in flyers and became involved in the campaign. The students were to be compensated as much as $500 for their help.

The primary contributor though was former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican and Trump supporter, who gave $1 million to this PAC. He gave another $1 million to CCSA Advocates. And he spent an additional $41,398 directly.

Where does the union side get its money?

In city filings, United Teachers Los Angeles is the big spender on the union side, at about $4.13 million. Much of this money came from other teachers unions: American Federation of Teachers, $1.2 million; National Education Assn., $700,000; California Teachers Assn., $250,000.

The union collects an average of $9.50 a month from the 22% of its 32,000 members who have agreed to contribute to political campaigns, totaling about $67,000 a month from January onward. Union members also voted to borrow $500,000 from their strike fund for the election effort.

The teachers union also contributed an undisclosed amount as part of a "We Are Public Schools" media campaign, which includes billboards with positive messages about public schools. Some featured pictures of the candidates the union supported.

How easy is it to figure out the source of the money in the school board races?

Not very. California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, for example, files with state regulators, not the city, and the state requires only a semi-annual report. It won’t be possible to look up who gave in the five months leading up to the May 16 election until sometime after June.

Key contributors, however, gave large amounts in the last part of 2016, which was disclosed in the most recent semi-annual report.

Why do the candidates keep saying they ran positive campaigns when piles of mailers seem to indicate otherwise?

The current campaign tactic is to allow the outside spenders, with the lion’s share of the campaign money, to do the dirty work. The candidates use their shares of campaign money to run positive messages about themselves, emphasizing their good character and how much they abhor negative campaigning. They also usually accuse their opponents of mudslinging, when the outside funders on both sides are doing it.


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