Two elections affecting L.A. schools make for strange bedfellows

Philanthropist Eli Broad, pictured in 2009, says his actions on two pivotal elections affecting L.A. schools are consistent.
Philanthropist Eli Broad, pictured in 2009, says his actions on two pivotal elections affecting L.A. schools are consistent.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Two pivotal, looming elections are a study in contradictions for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In one contest, two powerful unions have become heated rivals; in the other, they’ve remained best of friends.

In one election, philanthropist Eli Broad remains the quintessential enemy of the teachers union; in the other, he’s become an ally.


The two elections are a Tuesday runoff for a school-board seat, followed hard by a June 4 vote for a property tax to benefit local public schools.

The atypical alignments have been accompanied by the spending of millions of dollars.

For the most part, there’s an underlying logic to the shifting alliances, said UCLA education professor John Rogers.

Parties warring over the board seat agree, Rogers said, that “Los Angeles schools are underfunded relative to the nation and relative to what L.A. students need.” They are finding “common cause” over Measure EE.

The two unions at war — and in alliance — are Local 99 of Service Employees International and United Teachers Los Angeles. Local 99 represents about 30,000 mostly lower-salaried non-teaching employees in L.A. Unified. UTLA represents a comparable number of teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors.

For the Board of Education seat, the teachers are supporting Jackie Goldberg, a former school board member and longtime elected official. Union leaders see her as the best choice to end a series of recent losses by candidates they have endorsed in school-board elections.


Those losses led in 2017 to the first-ever board majority elected with substantial funding from charter-school supporters.

Charters are privately operated and compete with district-run schools for students. With overall enrollment dropping, the strain is showing on the district budget, with spending outpacing revenue, according to officials. Moreover, most charters are non-union, which would suggest a natural alliance between teachers and Local 99.

Not so.

Local 99 is going with Heather Repenning, a district parent who resigned from a seat on the city’s public works commission to run for office. Local 99 wanted its own candidate and also was lobbied by allies of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has put his influence behind Repenning, a longtime aide.

Although both Repenning and Goldberg insist they’d treat charter schools — and all schools — fairly, some charter backers have contributed funds to help Repenning.

Two pro-charter philanthropists, Eli Broad ($100,000) and Bill Bloomfield ($5,000), donated to help Local 99 with its pro-Repenning efforts.

Broad said his actions were consistent.

“We are constantly seeking to improve education for L.A.’s youth, so we were proud to partner with SEIU in supporting Heather ... and in supporting Measure EE to secure more resources for all of our public schools.”

Overall, charter backers have been comparatively restrained this election cycle. Part of the reason is indecision and turnover within the California Charter School Assn. and its affiliated political action committee. Charter backers suffered disappointing losses to their favored candidates in the contests for governor and state superintendent of public instruction. Moreover, the PAC never settled on a pro-charter school board candidate, and some in the group were hesitant to play too forward a role in the current L.A. Unified board race.

Some of that hesitancy seemed to stem from incidents surrounding the resignation of Ref Rodriguez. Tuesday’s election will fill Rodriguez’s school board seat in District 5, which represents neighborhoods north of downtown Los Angeles as well as cities in southeast L.A. County.

Rodriguez, a charter school co-founder, pleaded guilty last July to criminal campaign finance violations. It’s uncertain to what extent the criminal case could have a negative impact on the charter brand and perhaps boost Goldberg’s chances.

Until this race, charter backers had been the biggest spenders in L.A. school board elections, far surpassing even the teachers union.

With much of the charter money on the sidelines, Local 99 spent about $1 million, compared with nearly $700,000 by UTLA, in the lead-up to the March primary.

Since then, UTLA has caught up, spending over $600,000 more, about double the new money that Local 99 put in, according to filings with the city.

In the primary, Local 99 distributed hard-hitting and somewhat misleading fliers against Goldberg, implying, for example, that she tried to cut funding for schools. In the runoff, Local 99 has stopped running negative ads — perhaps not wanting to risk personal offense to someone who may win.

Instead, the negative ads against Goldberg are being disseminated by New York-based Students for Education Reform Action Network, which is associated with donors who support charter schools.

UTLA has not run negative ads against Repenning to date.

In the March primary, Goldberg finished far ahead in a crowded field but failed to claim a majority, which would have won the seat outright. Repenning could win on Tuesday if she’s able to consolidate the voters who did not support Goldberg in the first round.

Another election is around the corner. In June, voters will cast ballots on Measure EE, a property tax that would raise an estimated $500 million a year for 12 years to benefit local schools. Both district-run and charter schools would benefit.

Here, the two unions are allied, joined by Garcetti and Broad, who contributed $250,000 to the Yes on EE campaign. The pro-charter PAC also recommends a yes vote.

The largest local business groups are opposed to the tax — in a split with L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner, a businessman who long maintained cordial relations with these groups before taking the job as schools chief.

The multimillion-dollar campaign for the measure has outraised the campaign against it, with the two unions leading the way.

“Ultimately, SEIU Local 99 and UTLA are allies in the fight for quality education,” said Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias.

“What we all agree on is that our schools are starved of resources, and students are the victims of this starvation,” said teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl. “Now is not the time to fight. Now is the time for a city to come together.”