Charter groups and unions have put $6.4 million into the race for the Westside’s board seat, far more than the candidates have raised

By Gary Walker

The May 16 LAUSD Board of Education runoff election pitting incumbent Steve Zimmer against challenger Nick Melvoin is shaping up as quite possibly the most expensive and hotly contested school board race in the nation, and neither candidate is in control of how most of the money is being spent.

Outside organizations not controlled or directly affiliated with either campaign — namely charter school groups backing Melvoin and public employee unions for Zimmer — had spent more than $6.38 million on campaign mailers, television commercials and other advertisements as of April 29, according to Los Angeles Ethics Commission records.

By comparison, the candidates themselves had raised just over $1 million.

More than 37% of all outside spending (about $2.42 million) paid for ads attacking Zimmer, part of a current LAUSD board majority that’s sympathetic to the teacher’s union and that charter school backers nationwide hope to topple.

Zimmer, a two-term incumbent and currently president of the board, won 47.5% of the vote in a four-way March 7 primary contest. Melvoin came in second with 31% support.

Both candidates have lamented the onslaught of disparaging campaign material in both the primary and general election cycles.

“While I think we’re getting our positive vision out to voters through the mail, our TV ads and knocking on doors, we’re having to fight against an onslaught of negative campaigning and deliberate lies that distract from the real issues,” Melvoin said in a recent interview.

Zimmer said his opponents, especially committees sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association, have played fast and loose with the truth, not to mention common decency. In one mailer, a group calling itself L.A. Students for Change (which got $1 million from former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan) used Photoshop to recreate the poster for Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” with Zimmer’s face.

“They have no moral code and will attempt to take this board seat by any means necessary,” Zimmer said. “I knew what this [election] would be like. On balance, whatever I have to go through is nothing compared to what the children in Board District 4 have to go through in order to fulfill their American dream through public education.”

In addition to the $2.42 million in independent expenditures attacking Zimmer, billionaire philanthropist and charter schools advocate Eli Broad, Parent Teacher Alliance and others have put $1.83 million into supporting Melvoin.

Groups affiliated with public employee unions have spent more than $1.6 million in support of Zimmer and $440,000 opposing Melvoin — almost all of it coming from groups sponsored by United Teachers of Los Angeles and other teachers unions.

In terms of political endorsements, Melvoin has Broad, Riordan, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in his camp; Zimmer’s backers include U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the vast majority of municipal, county, state and federal officeholders who represent Westside districts.

Katie Braude, a Melvoin supporter, sees the record-level spending to influence the race as a reflection of its importance.

“It’s testimony about how people are seeing this race. People are looking at this race nationally,” said Braude, executive director of Speak Up, a Westside parent organization. “I think this campaign is about whether we continue to support a bureaucracy that’s not responding to our kids. … We need a fresh, outside perspective.”

Union-funded ads opposing Melvoin, meanwhile, have attempted to connect him to the school choice agendas of President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Participants in a May 5 anti-Melvoin rally outside Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista struck a similar tone, many holding signs that read “Our Schools Are Not For Sale!”

Comedian Clifford Tasner, aka Felonious X, added to the political theater by wearing a top hat and coattails to portray a corporate fat cat donor bent on draining the coffers of traditional public schools for the benefit of charters. Tasner mocked contributions in support of Melvoin by displaying a poster-size novelty check for
$1 million made out to Melvoin.

“This race is the battleground for public schools,” said Mar Vista parent Karrie Roy, who supports Zimmer.

And as next Tuesday approaches, no one is predicting  a runaway victory for either candidate.

“We see it as a very close race,” Braude said.