A charter-school advocacy group relied on major last-minute donations to help turn around a key Westside school board race and propel its favored candidates to a majority on the Los Angeles Board of Education, newly disclosed financial reports reveal.
The contributors in the final stretch of the L.A. Board of Education campaigns included philanthropist Eli Broad, who gave nearly $1.9 million in April and May to California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, and Manhattan Beach businessman William Bloomfield, who overall contributed $2.275 million, the vast majority in April and May.
In the last weeks before the May 16 election, pro-charter spending swamped the Westside race just as the major spender on the opposing side, the L.A. teachers union, was shifting resources to the other school board contest in a different part of the city.
Candidates backed by charter supporters prevailed in both races, leading to the first board majority with major pro-charter financial support.
Charter schools are privately managed and mostly non-union; locally, most operate as nonprofit organizations. L.A. Unified has more charters than any other school system. Backers say they provide high-quality options for families while spurring traditional schools through competition to improve. Critics counter that the charters often don't serve the most challenging students and that their rapid growth has undermined the solvency of L.A. Unified.
In all, outside groups — mainly charter backers and teachers unions — spent nearly $15 million, a record, on behalf of candidates in three school board races. (The candidates spent $2.2 million on their own campaigns, with many contributors similarly invested for or against charters and unions.)
More than $1.4 million reached California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates after the deadline when the contributions would be disclosed before the election.
CCSA Advocates spent much of its money directly. It also funneled dollars to allied or affiliated groups, some with misleading names — Parent Teacher Alliance (which is not the PTA) and LA Students for Change, which was not a grassroots student group.
The charter group files twice yearly donation and spending reports with the California Secretary of State. The latest report, filed at the end of July, covers the first half of 2017. Many pre-election donations came to light through previous state and local disclosures, including nearly $7 million since September 2016 from Netflix founder Reed Hastings, the election cycle's largest contributor.
Still, the report has new and revealing information, including some unexpected bedfellows. CCSA Advocates, for example, provided $150,000 to the California Democratic Party, which is typically aligned with teacher unions, and $25,000 to Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents 30,000 nonteaching school employees such as custodians and cafeteria workers.
The Local 99 money was used to help support charter-backed incumbent Monica Garcia, who had the local's endorsement, said its political director Lester Garcia, who is not related to the school board member.
Monica Garcia, whose District 2 covers downtown and surrounding areas, avoided a May runoff by winning a majority of votes in the March primary.
CCSA Advocates also contributed $74,000 to an organization called Speak UP, which launched in March 2016 and quickly stepped out as a strong opponent of incumbent Steve Zimmer in District 4, which stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley. Zimmer, who was the school board president, lost to attorney Nick Melvoin.
Speak UP, which began with a core of Westside volunteers, said Wednesday that it also accepted $125,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, a pro-charter organization funded by the founders of Wal-Mart. (Walton family heirs also donated heavily to CCSA Advocates.) Other donors include wealthy local residents and Bloomfield ($50,000).
Speak UP director Katie Braude said her group accepted the CCSA money because "our two organizations shared the same goal: to elect Nick Melvoin, a candidate we believe will put the interests of kids before the interests of adults."
Ann Wexler, who is co-founder of a charter school and volunteered with Speak UP, characterized the connection as "the real election story: Scrappy moms bend billionaires to their will and get their guy elected."
CCSA Advocates declined to answer questions about its fundraising, spending and strategy, but said it complied with all legal requirements.
The overall outside spending in the school board races — $9.7 million by charter backers, $5.2 million by unions for their favored candidates — masked a shift on both sides after Zimmer finished first in the four-way March primary with a seemingly comfortable 47% of the vote.
However, in the runoff between Zimmer and second-place Melvoin, union spending for Zimmer (mostly but not exclusively from United Teachers Los Angeles) declined from the primary's $1.64 million to $940,000.
Pro-charter spending for Melvoin, meanwhile, increased from $2.16 million to $3.71 million, giving him a four-to-one cash advantage.
In District 6, in the east San Fernando Valley, unions ramped up spending on behalf of Imelda Padilla, from about $500,000 in the primary to more than $1.9 million in the runoff. But charter backers kept pace, increasing their spending for the victorious Kelly Gonez from $830,000 in the primary to $2.61 million in the runoff.