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L.A. school board runoff grows expensive and contentious

The teachers union is backing Bennett Kayser against Luis Sanchez, whose campaign has Villaraigosa's support, in a $3-million race.

May 14, 2011|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

The race for the last available Los Angeles school board seat has turned both expensive, with almost $3 million spent in all, and nasty, with one candidate calling for an ethics investigation of his opponent, who in turn said the other's policies are bigoted.

But even as he stuck to his earlier charge that some of his opponent's ideas "could be seen as racist," Bennett Kayser said he regretted the overall tone of the campaign.

"I wish that things would have been more intellectual and about educational policy, not negative campaigning," he said.

Tuesday's election marks the only time in this election season when a candidate backed by the teachers union has directly faced off against one supported by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

United Teachers Los Angeles has spent almost $620,000 in support of Kayser and in opposition to Luis Sanchez. Kayser is a retired teacher who has done almost no fundraising of his own. Sanchez is chief of staff to the school board president, and Villaraigosa has helped raise funds for his campaign.

The union did not spend heavily to support candidates for more than one of the seats on the ballot, as it has in past years. And, even if Sanchez loses, a majority on the seven-member board will still be aligned with Villaraigosa on key issues, although a Sanchez win would provide a more comfortable cushion for the mayor.

Both the teachers and administrators unions have endorsed Kayser, although he was not United Teachers Los Angeles first choice. The group first backed John Fernandez, a former union representative and Roosevelt High school instructor, before withdrawing its support over issues that included a previous bankruptcy.

A variety of other labor groups and elected officials, including the Service Employees International Union Local 99, have backed Sanchez. "We have a true, diverse coalition," Sanchez said.

The campaign for District 5, which stretches from Los Feliz to Maywood, has been marked with accusations from both sides. Kayser sent a complaint to the city's Ethics Commission, charging that a mailer from Sanchez's campaign was nearly identical to one used by an independent fundraising committee. Such committees are not allowed to coordinate with candidates.

The commission, which has oversight over L.A. Unified, has not taken any action against either candidate.

Mailers from both campaigns have also become more pointedly negative. A pamphlet in support of Kayser accused Sanchez of using tax dollars to fund "lavish trips across the country," but a mailer in support of Sanchez said he took one trip to Washington, D.C., in 2007 and showed his itinerary for those two days full of meetings with Congress members and their staff.

Sanchez said the teachers union was targeting him because he is favor of actions they oppose, including using student test score data in teacher evaluations and limiting seniority-based layoffs.

"I've been punched throughout the campaign by UTLA.... They know I'm for change and they're digging their heels in," he said.

A mailer funded by a pro-Sanchez committee claimed that Kayser didn't pay his property taxes, a charge Kayser denied. He produced a receipt, and it was printed in a mailer paid for by the teachers union's political action committee, which the Sanchez campaign said may have broken ethics laws.

The two also sparred at a recent candidates forum. When Sanchez said he favored redistributing teachers so less affluent campuses would have more veteran teachers, Kayser said that would unfairly penalize other campuses.

"That sounds kind of racist or bigoted to me," Kayser said.

Instead, Kayser said in a later interview, the district should spend more resources to improve working conditions in poorer schools to make them more attractive to instructors.

"You shouldn't have high turnover.... You need to figure out what it is that keeps the teachers from leaving," Kayser said.

Even without the endorsement of the teachers union, Sanchez said, he believes rank-and-file instructors support him.

"The current [union] leadership is leading them nowhere, and teachers are frustrated," he said.

jason.song@latimes.com

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