Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy isn't on the ballot Tuesday, but you'd hardly know it, based on the undercurrent of the school board election.
A coalition of local organizations, wealthy donors and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have decided that the election is all about keeping Deasy on the job and accelerating the aggressive policies he's putting into place.
This group has come together for the campaign through a political action committee called the Coalition for School Reform. So far it's raised on behalf of three candidates more than $3.2 million, including $1 million from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The superintendent has a "relentless focus on improving student performance, rather than on protecting a system that does not always serve students," said Elise Buik, president of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. And that, she said, "has made him an easy target for those who are comfortable with the status quo."
Although not part of the funding coalition, the United Way is allied with community groups that support Deasy and want to limit the influence of the teachers union.
That union, United Teachers Los Angeles, is opposing the coalition in two of these races and is neutral in the third. Unless national unions jump in massively, UTLA cannot match the coalition in dollars, but it does have thousands of volunteers it can mobilize including teachers, counselors, social workers and librarians.
UTLA has not made removing Deasy a litmus test for candidates it supports — and Deasy has worked successfully with all employee unions on notable issues — but a sizable UTLA contingent says Deasy has misplaced priorities that have denigrated teachers and worsened working conditions.
Deasy, and the groups that support him, place a high priority on improving teacher effectiveness through new performance reviews that rely on student standardized test scores as a key component. Deasy has proposed basing 30% of an instructor's evaluation on test scores; the teachers union opposes such a fixed percentage.
Many Deasy backers also would end teacher job protections that protect ineffective veteran instructors at the expense of more able teachers with less seniority. So far, Deasy has limited, but not ended, the seniority system, which is enshrined in state law. The union defends seniority as the fairest approach to layoffs, especially in the absence of an evaluation system that they find reliable.
The superintendent also has sped the dismissal process of teachers accused of misconduct and pushed for changes in state law that would give him more authority over hiring and firing.
Advocates for independently managed charter schools have made common cause with the coalition. They oppose impediments to the growth and operation of charters and also want freer access to district-owned campuses. L.A. Unified has the greatest number of publicly funded charter schools of any district in the country.
The tenure of the schools chief, who has been praised by the Obama administration, has become more precarious in recent months because three of the seven current members of the Board of Education would consider removing him, according to insiders. None of the three are on the ballot in the March 5 election.
That has intensified the focus on the reelection bid of one-term incumbent Steve Zimmer, 42, who is supported by the teachers union. Zimmer talks of Deasy as a strong leader with whom he sometimes has strong disagreements; he has been unwilling to replace Deasy so far. But the superintendent's supporters see Zimmer as a possible fourth anti-Deasy vote. Zimmer's District 4 stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley.
Zimmer's backers insist that he simply does not deserve to be fired by voters. They describe the longtime teacher and neighborhood activist as a thoughtful, hardworking moderate who helped bring opposing parties together on issues large and small.
The pro-Deasy forces are firmly behind challenger Kate Anderson, 41, who leaves no doubt about her enthusiasm for the superintendent.
Her supporters say the board could use her intelligence and perspective. They point to her experience in civic affairs, including as an attorney, a parent, a onetime congressional staffer, a member of a neighborhood council and even her stint as UCLA student body president.
The coalition also stands firmly behind school board President Monica Garcia, 44, a Deasy backer who is considered Villaraigosa's closest ally on the board. Her District 2 stretches out from downtown.
Thanks to the coalition and her own sway within the district, Garcia enjoys a dominant funding advantage over all four challengers combined. The union hasn't bankrolled any challenger but has invested in an anti-Garcia campaign, hoping to force a runoff.
Her challengers are: Robert Skeels, 47, a writer and researcher who criticizes corporate and foundation involvement in education as well as the growth of standardized testing; Isabel Vazquez, 52, a former board member's aide who became an adult-school administrator before budget cuts forced her return to the classroom this year; Abelardo Diaz, 51, a veteran Spanish teacher, who helped start a bilingual academic decathlon and is among the founding faculty at the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts; and Annamarie Montanez, 40, a teacher with broad experience at the elementary and adult-school levels, reduced to part-time hours in the adult school because of budget cuts.
Board member Nury Martinez is leaving her District 6 seat after one term to run for L.A. City Council. Her district encompasses the east San Fernando Valley.
Among three candidates, Antonio Sanchez, 30, voiced the clearest support for Deasy, a major factor in his landing financial support from the coalition. Non-teaching unions also have spent money in support of Sanchez, who just completed a master's degree in urban planning at UCLA. He has experience in campaign work and as a staff member for a state legislator and the mayor.
Another aspirant is Maria Cano, 42, a veteran manager in the community outreach office of the district's school construction program; the wind-down of that effort resulted in her being laid off. The third candidate is Monica Ratliff, 43, a veteran fifth-grade teacher at a high-performing school who worked as an attorney before deciding to change fields.
The teachers union has funded no candidate in this contest.