Valentine’s Day brought more than candy and flowers for one incumbent and two challengers in the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education elections.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gifted them with a $1 million donation to a group that is supporting them and a week after the largess became public, the contribution as well as the reasons behind it continue to reverberate on the Westside.
The Coalition for School Reform, an organization that is backed by billionaires A. Jerrold Perenchio and Eli Broad, was the recipient of the donation but the candidates that the coalition supports, which include Mar Vista resident Kate Anderson, will be the beneficiaries.
The group describes itself as “a group of parents, educators and business and nonprofit leaders dedicated to reforming and improving public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
Anderson is challenging incumbent school board member Steve Zimmer in LAUSD’s District 4, which includes schools in Mar Vista, Venice, Westchester, Del Rey and Hollywood.
LAUSD School Board President Monica García and challengers Anderson and Antonio Sanchez are contenders who are considered more sympathetic to charter organizations and Perenchio, Broad and Bloomberg are staunch supporters of the charter movement, often described by supporters as school reform.
“The mayor has said he’s going to support efforts and candidates around the country on the issues that he cares about and education reform is one of the issues at the top of that list,” Bloomberg press secretary Marc LaVorgna told another publication after the donation was announced.
The coalition has spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on behalf of Anderson, who is a member of the Mar Vista Community Council, election reporting records show.
“This is unprecedented,” Zimmer said in an interview days after Bloomberg’s contribution. “This is not the first time that someone has tried to buy a local school board election.”
In 1999, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan attempted to put his stamp on the school board by financially backing candidates of his choosing and was successful in helping to elect Genethia Hundley-Hayes and Caprice Young, both of whom were defeated in their reelection bids four years later.
Zimmer said there is a stark distinction this time. “The biggest difference is in the balance of power and how brazen it is,” he explained. “In this scenario, they are looking to buy complete and total control of the system.”
Ann Wexler, one of the co-founders of Westchester Secondary Charter School, is not sure that the Bloomberg donation represents a new trend in local politics, with independent expenditure campaigns being funded by wealthy individuals that in turn back the candidates of their choice.
“I’m not sure this represents a trend. I think it’s more a testament to what (LAUSD Superintendent John) Deasy has accomplished and how he is viewed on the national stage,” said Wexler, who lives in Westchester.
But Kristen Duerr, the president of the Venice High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association, was not as certain.
“This money machine will set a precedent and the effects (will be) devastating, negating the power and efforts of local stakeholders like myself,” she predicted.
Duerr, who taught at Beethoven Elementary School in Mar Vista and directs an annual December holiday play there, is worried that those with immense wealth with few or no ties to local schools could soon wield great influence due in large part to the size of their checkbooks.
“I am a neighborhood stakeholder. It’s easy for people who haven’t been in the trenches of our local schools to think they know what has to be fixed,” she said.
“They should ask people like me and the parents I know who spend their every waking moments working towards the betterment of their public school.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reportedly brokered the donation to the coalition funded by Broad.
Anderson’s campaign did not respond directly to a question about Bloomberg’s largess to an organization that is supporting her campaign.
“We are focused on running our own grassroots campaign. We are out talking to voters and fundraising for our campaign. We are happy that the civic community has come together and highlighted the importance of high quality public education,” wrote Anderson’s campaign manager, Madeline Moore, in response to questions regarding how they think the race could be affected by the donation.
Charters have exploded across the educational landscape over the last several years and Los Angeles is considered ground zero in an escalating competition between for-profit operators, nonprofit groups and proponents of traditional neighborhood schools, which due to colocations, are in many cases required to share their campuses with charter schools.
Colocation is a situation that has created animosity at some District 4 campuses. Proposition 39, a 2000 ballot initiative, gave charter organizations the right to petition for space and facilities on traditional school campuses where such space exists and where classrooms are considered underutilized or vacant.
School districts tender offers to charters at schools where these classrooms exist and charters then decide whether to accept or deny them.
Charter school proponents rally under the banner of school choice and have pushed LAUSD to create more of these institutions through approving their applications, offering new schools to charter operators through the Public School Initiative or through colocation.
Traditional school advocates say their children are being sacrificed at the altar of choice and that the district unfairly allocates fewer resources to neighborhood schools and more to charters.
Wexler noted that unions can also spend unlimited funds on their candidates.
“This kind of money has always been there for candidates more aligned with the teachers union, so it just makes for a more even playing field,” she said.
United Teachers Los Angeles, LAUSD’s largest union, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the Service Employees International Union support Zimmer.
The incumbent feels that this will not be the last time that a millionaire or a group of well-heeled individuals will try to influence the outcome of an election, even at the local level.
“I suspect that this will continue over the next couple of weeks,” Zimmer said. “I think there will be more folks who will join these millionaires in trying to buy the election.
“School board elections should not be for sale,” he concluded.
Villaraigosa’s office did not return phone calls for comment.