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Villaraigosa, teachers union agree on L.A. school board choices

A potentially costly battle is averted in the low-key campaign. Three seats will be filled Tuesday.

February 27, 2009|Howard Blume

A looming costly rematch between the mayor of Los Angeles and the teachers union over control of the school board has fizzled into a guarded truce.

The result is a low-key election that finds Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the potent United Teachers Los Angeles endorsing the same candidates despite uncertainties about how they or their backers hope to guide reforms in the nation's second-largest school system.

Issues looming over the race include the proliferation of charter schools and the role of teachers in helping to run campuses.

On the ballot Tuesday are three of seven Board of Education seats for the Los Angeles Unified School District. One race is all but settled: In District 2, which circles the city's core, school board president Monica Garcia is running unopposed. The other two races could be dictated by the union's financial backing, especially because the mayor and other powerful players have remained largely on the sidelines.

For the mayor, the detente avoids a bruising fracas with a union whose support (along with that of other unions) he would want in a potential bid for the governor's office. The union still is spending money on the school races, but because it does not have to fight Villaraigosa, it can save funds for other politicking and to augment a strike fund as protracted contract talks continue.

A political war nearly was engaged in District 4, which stretches across most of the Westside as well as the southwest San Fernando Valley and much of Hollywood.

Attorney and longtime Democratic consultant Ben Austin was bidding strongly for the support of Villaraigosa, former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire education philanthropist Eli Broad. Some union leaders distrusted Austin's employment with Green Dot Public Schools, the charter organization that, with Austin's help, engineered the conversion of Locke High to a charter school that is no longer represented by the union. The impending slugfest evaporated when Austin failed to qualify for the ballot because of a campaign snafu.

In anticipation, however, of a well-funded Austin campaign, UTLA leaders united behind teacher and community activist Steve Zimmer, even though, they said, they also respected Mike Stryer, another teacher in the race.

The UTLA leadership wants its horse to win, in part, to send the message that union support remains crucial. And, in relative terms, its money dominates. On Zimmer's behalf, the union has poured in $258,618 so far, according to city records, the largest independent-expenditure campaign for an office in this municipal election. Zimmer had a comparatively modest $58,376 in donations under his own control. Stryer's total of $71,596 includes his own $30,000 loan.

Hollywood resident Zimmer, 38, is a 1992 Teach for America recruit who has become a fixture at Marshall High in Silver Lake. Besides teaching at Marshall, he founded and runs the Comprehensive Student Support Center to provide health services to students and their families.

Stryer, 47, has a varied career that includes developing international sales and marketing strategies as a senior executive at Applause (which made toys under license with Disney) and Variflex (which makes in-line skates and other recreational products).

Stryer's passion for education prompted a career change, he said. He's taught social studies-related courses for six years at Fairfax High. Stryer emphasizes his corporate financial background as a needed attribute on the school board.

Zimmer contends that his budgeting experience with nonprofits and service agencies is more directly relevant.

In District 6, in the eastern San Fernando Valley, Nury Martinez, 35, offers deep local political roots and union sympathies. In 1989, as a San Fernando High student, she led a rally in support of striking teachers and, at a January union rally, she pledged to "do it again" if teachers don't receive a fair offer. She worked in a succession of campaigns and political field offices -- and won election in 2003 to the San Fernando City Council. Since 2007, she's been the executive director of the local nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, whose grant-funded efforts include an environmental education program for high school students. UTLA has spent $27,824 in support of Martinez to date.

Her opponent, former L.A. Unified teacher and Sun Valley resident Louis Pugliese, 58, teaches education courses at Cal State Northridge and served on a local charter school board. He's also an appointee to the city's Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families. Pugliese, who ran two years ago for the board when he lived in another district, touts his deeper experience in education. He filed suit unsuccessfully to remove Martinez's ballot designation as "environmental educator."

The mayor has endorsed Martinez and Zimmer.

Any outcome will leave intact a 2-year-old majority generally allied with Villaraigosa.

It was the current board that gave the mayor the right to spearhead reforms at 10 campuses that opted to take part.

And these board members also have nurtured ties with UTLA, which raises unsettled questions. Union President A.J. Duffy said he'd like a cap, for example, on the number of charter schools, which are public schools run independently of the school district. The mayor's broad support base includes civic and education leaders set on rapid charter expansion.

Duffy also wants to unionize the vast majority of charters that are nonunion, which also worries key Villaraigosa supporters.

The union and the nonprofit that runs the mayor's schools also have clashed -- civilly, so far. The union contends that the mayor's team has not yet fully honored a pledge to give teachers substantial authority at schools.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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