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Big night for charter school-backed LAUSD candidates as Melvoin, Gonez win seats

Two Los Angeles Unified School Board candidates who, with the support of charter school advocates, campaigned on promises to shake up the status quo in the nation’s second-largest school system won seats on the district’s school board in city elections Tuesday.

Nick Melvoin, a former middle school teacher and one of the best-financed candidates ever in an L.A. Unified race, ousted incumbent Steve Zimmer after a bruising, muddy race dominated by record-setting levels of spending from outside political interest groups.

“I think it is a shake-up,” Melvoin told reporters at a lively campaign party in Venice on Tuesday night. “This election … represents a desire for some new leadership.”

Melvoin will take over the District 4 seat Zimmer’s held since 2009, which covers much of West L.A., Hollywood and a sliver of the southwest San Fernando Valley, on July 1, according to preliminary results.

In the East Valley’s District 6 race, Kelly Gonez is currently leading former labor organizer and city council field deputy Imelda Padilla in a race between political newcomers to fill the open seat left by departing board member Mónica Ratliff.

Board members endorsed by the California Charter Schools Association’s political arm now make up a majority of the district’s seven-member board: Gonez and Melvoin will join Mónica Garcia, who already won re-election outright in the March primary race, and Ref Rodriguez, who won his seat in 2015.

Tuesday's vote caps a disastrous election season for L.A.’s main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which backed both Zimmer and Padilla, but also found their normally formidable campaign war chests were no match for much deeper-pocketed charter school groups backing Melvoin or Gonez.

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said on Tuesday night that those groups “continue to see Los Angeles as ground zero for attempting to create a [school] system that doesn’t serve all students … and for trying to create a system where elections and school boards can be bought.”

“I fully accept,” Zimmer said at his election night party in Mar Vista, “the mistakes and shortcomings that I’ve made as a school board member and I also own the successes. But this campaign wasn’t about that, and at a certain level, I don’t think any of us should be OK with that.”

Tuesday marked the end of the most expensive campaign season in the recent history of L.A. Unified School Board politics.

Outside political groups combined to spend at least $14.7 million on consultants, canvassers, phone bankers and advertising. This total of “independent expenditures” is more than twice the previous record outside groups have spent on an L.A. Unified race ($6.1 million in 2013).

A collection of interest groups linked to the California Charter Schools Association combined to spend roughly two-thirds of the outside money spent in the race: about $9.5 million.

UTLA’s political affiliates spent a combined $4 million on the race. National teachers unions helped finance the local union’s outside spending, with the National Education Association injecting $200,000 into UTLA’s main political action committee in the campaign’s final week. The American Federation of Teachers supplied another $165,000.

Candidates cannot legally coordinate with groups making these expenditures, which have dominated L.A. Unified politics since voters opted to cap contributions to individual school board candidate campaigns in 2007.

But candidates’ fundraising totals also hit superlative levels this year. Combined, they raised more than $2 million — the highest amount they’ve raised for their own campaigns since the contribution limits took effect in the 2009 race.

L.A. school board candidate Kelly Gonez, left, addresses campaign volunteers before a day of door-knocking on Sunday, March 5.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
L.A. school board candidate Kelly Gonez, left, addresses campaign volunteers before a day of door-knocking on Sunday, March 5.

Still, it was mostly independent expenditures predominantly filling voters' mailboxes and airwaves — and roughly one-third of that outside money paid for negative advertising. Measured dollar for dollar, most of these attacks came from charter school groups targeting Zimmer, in particular, and Padilla to a lesser extent — but no candidate was exempt from outside mudslinging.

Ads funded by the teachers union attempted to link Gonez and Melvoin — both Democrats — with President Donald Trump because the union views all three as too friendly to charter schools.

During the final weekend of campaigning, both Melvoin and Zimmer took issue with the extent to which this outside messaging crowded out policy debate.

“If I’m an undecided voter,” Melvoin said of the negative ads targeting both him and Zimmer, “I see, ‘They’re both Democrats, they’re both Trump supporters, they’re both bought and paid for!’ It’s just so confusing to cut through the noise.”

“The whole thing is completely surreal,” Zimmer, who alone faced more than $3.3 million-worth of negative advertising, said on Saturday. “If you were to tell me this was a movie, I would be like, ‘Nah, this stuff doesn’t happen in movies.’ … It’s so absurd and so ridiculous, so offensive, and so upsetting that it’s one of those things that if you begin to think about it, you don’t stop thinking about it.”

L.A. Unified School Board president Steve Zimmer, center, campaigning with volunteers in Mar Vista.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
L.A. Unified School Board president Steve Zimmer, center, campaigning with volunteers in Mar Vista.

Candidates spent most of the campaign attempting to break out of the framework that tends to dominate L.A. Unified board races: the narrative of charter school interests battling teachers unions for control.

Melvoin, Gonez and Padilla all rejected this framing in their own ways during the race. Zimmer painted himself as a moderate on charters, noting he's both skeptical of charter schools and had also voted to approve charter schools in large numbers.

But Tuesday, Melvoin and Zimmer both acknowledged the result of the L.A. Unified races could have huge impacts on the district's relationship with charter schools and inform a broader debate over whether Democrats ought to embrace charter schools, tolerate them, or oppose them.

"This is an issue that the progressive community hasn't addressed: the charter school issue," Melvoin said.

"People who are aligned on 99 percent of issues — immigration, women's right to choose, the environment, taxes, Prop 13 reform — are split on education," Melvoin said. "I think you're going to play out in the state superintendent's race, you're going to see it in the gubernatorial race. I think [this L.A. Unified race] is somewhat of a bellwether locally."

Zimmer said he was concerned about the torrid pace of charter school expansion in L.A. Unified. There are currently 228 independent charter schools in the district — more than double the number of charter schools in L.A. a decade ago.

"We all should be worried about [unchecked charter growth]," Zimmer said, "not because charter schools are somehow bad or somehow the enemy, but because de-regulation presents very real risks to the children who need public education the most …

"I think," he added, "there's a real risk that this school district will not survive the additional proliferation of charter schools. My problem with that is not that of someone who's just lost an election, but that there's never been a plan for children who are left behind, the kids who remain."

Asked if he had any future plans, Zimmer was uncertain. He expressed interest in returning to work for social justice causes. But Zimmer, who said he never aspired to be an elected official, was at least certain about this:

"I'll never put my family through something like this again."

Click on the play button above to hear an interview with Nick Melvoin on Wednesday's Morning Edition.