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How PACs are impacting school board elections in LA

Geoffrey Bowyer votes at Angeles Mesa Elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District run-off election between George McKenna and Alex Johnson for the board of education seat in District 1.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
In this file photo, Geoffrey Bowyer votes on August 12, 2014 at Angeles Mesa Elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District run-off election between George McKenna and Alex Johnson for the board of education seat in District 1. Political action committee spending in this year's Los Angeles Unified election is 15 times higher than it was 2009. Many donors aren't disclosed ahead of elections.

Political action committees are spending 15 times the cash they did six years ago ahead of the Los Angeles Unified school board election on Tuesday.

Just this spring, more than $4.5 million flowed to PACs for glossy mail fliers, robocalls and ads on Spanish language radio in support or against school board candidates.

With runoffs set in west San Fernando Valley, east Los Angeles and South Bay board districts, PAC organizers hope to swing the ideological composition of the seven-member school board to their side, potentially altering the direction of the 650,00-student district and its $7.3 billion budget.

The stakes in this year's election are especially high because the new board will select the district's next superintendent. His or her leadership of the country's second largest school district will be closely watched both statewide and nationally.

Donors looking to influence education policy may be migrating from national to local elections where their dollars can have a greater impact, said Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

PACs allow donors to contribute to causes and candidates often with a degree of anonymity. Sonenshein said the veiling of contributions creates a barrier to an informed electorate.

"One of the great protections of voters is if you know whose money it is," Sonenshein said.

The biggest spender in the LAUSD school board election is the California Charter Schools Association Advocates' PACs, which so far has spent $2.2 million. Their funds primarily support charter school executive Ref Rodriguez in the east Los Angeles' District 5 race and against incumbent Bennett Kayser, a charter school opponent.

"We are supportive of candidates who have got a vision of great public schools in Los Angeles, and we would like charters to be part of that solutions," said Gary Borden, executive director of CCSA Advocates.

Last year, the charter school PAC received donations from local philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The names of more recent donors aren't required to be disclosed just yet: California requires these types of PACs to publish contributors on a semi-annual  basis, often falling after Election Day.

Some donors may prefer it that way. 

Last year, Sony executives discussed waiting until after the election to donate $25,000 to the African American Voter Registration and Education Project, a PAC supporting school board candidate Alex Johnson.

Jamie Lynton, the publisher of LA School Report, a blog reporting on Los Angeles schools and LAUSD school board races, is married to Sony CEO Michael Lynton.

In an email posted by WikiLeaks in the wake of a cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, a company executive suggested a way for Sony to avoid any potential issues with a donation to the African American voter PAC.

"Here's an option to make a direct contribution in a way that helps the effort but avoids perception/conflict issues," wrote Keith Weaver, Sony's vice president of global policy and external affairs, to Michael Lynton in a July 2014 email published by WikiLeaks. 

Contribution records show Sony made a $25,000 donation on Sept. 10, 2014, one month after the runoff election.

Weaver later clarified Sony Pictures Entertainment does not support school board candidates. 

"SPE is proud of its years-long history of supporting the African American Voter Registration and Education Project and its work to empower the community is consistent with the company’s corporate giving philosophy and practices," he said in a statement.

United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, has spent $1.3 million so far on its favored candidates. They include Kayser; Scott Schmerelson, who is working to unseat Tamar Galatzan in the west San Fernando Valley's District 3; and board president Richard Vladovic, who is being challenged by Lydia Gutierrez in the South Bay's District 7.

While outspent by the groups advocating for charter schools, many of them nonunion, UTLA can call on its more than 31,000 members and labor supporters to campaign on behalf of its favored candidates. 

"It's rare we are going to be able to outspend opponents," said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. "But we do put money behind candidates who support the values of the schools L.A. students deserve campaign, [including] fighting for things like class size, arts and music in schools, more counselors and social and emotional supports."

To read up on the LAUSD school board candidates running in Tuesday's election, visit KPCC's election guide.