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L.A. Unified board games

In the once-in-a-decade redrawing of school board districts, some close to the current process see the mayor's guiding hand.

March 09, 2012|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Bennett Kayser won election to L.A. school board District 5 last May. He's been a thorn in the mayor's side ever since, and now his district may be redrawn.
Bennett Kayser won election to L.A. school board District 5 last May. He's… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

For the last 10 months, Los Angeles Board of Education member Bennett Kayser has been a bit of a thorn in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's side.

First, he beat the mayor's hand-picked candidate for his seat in District 5, an area drawn to favor Latino candidates. Kayser frequently criticizes charter schools, which the mayor strongly supports. And Kayser led the charge for the board to support Gov. Jerry Brown's dismantling of redevelopment agencies, an action vigorously opposed by the mayor.

But as the once-in-a-decade redrawing of school board districts nears its end, some Los Angeles Unified School District officials and others close to the process see the mayor's guiding hand in the proposed lines. The map turned over to the City Council last week is seen as a move to bolster political strength on the school board for Villaraigosa and his allies.

Though most districts would remain largely the same under the proposed map, District 5, represented by Kayser, would undergo the biggest changes.

Kayser's district would retain two large geographic chunks: a northern portion including Eagle Rock, Silver Lake and East Hollywood and a southern portion including Vernon and South Gate. But instead of being connected on the eastern side, the new district would snake through portions of South L.A. and Pico-Union.

"It's not fair to the 640,000 constituents I was just elected to represent, from the southeast cities to Griffith Park," said Kayser, elected in May.

One aim of redistricting is to ensure that Latinos, African Americans and members of other groups denied representation in the past have an adequate opportunity to win a seat, as required under the federal Voting Rights Act.

During previous efforts, the district was drawn to facilitate the election of a Latino candidate. However, despite the increased odds, only one of the last three board members in that seat was Latino.

In last year's election, Kayser had the backing of the unions representing teachers and administrators.

Kayser beat Luis Sanchez by about 600 votes. Sanchez was backed by several large labor groups and key politicians, including Villaraigosa, who helped raise money for the campaign.

Kayser's win was a setback for the mayor. Exerting control over L.A. schools became a political imperative for the mayor as well as an intended pillar of his legacy, said David Tokofsky, a former District 5 school board member.

"It hurt him tremendously that Kayser won," Tokofsky said. "So what you couldn't do at the ballot booth, you do through the design."

The map would cut off Marshall High School in Los Feliz from almost all its feeder schools, split the Atwater Village and Los Feliz neighborhoods between two districts and remove areas near the Los Angeles River, where Kayser hoped to develop a science center.

The new district would move some potential voters from District 5 to District 2, represented by school board President Monica Garcia, the mayor's closest ally on the board. Currently, 47% of District 2's U.S. citizens are Latinos old enough to vote. Under the new maps, that figure would rise to 55%.

The changes slice up the core of Kayser's support while paving the way for a mayoral ally to be elected in District 5 and District 2, should Garcia leave the seat, several people close to the process said.

The mayor has denied even looking at the map and dismissed the idea that he would meddle in the process to create a district that would be difficult for Kayser to win.

"Bennett Kayser. He's not somebody that I —" Villaraigosa said, before pausing. "That would be giving Bennett Kayser too much credit. Redistricting has to conform with the Voting Rights Act and best serve the students."

But some school board officials and those involved in the redistricting process said that although Villaraigosa may not have directly managed day-to-day activities, the makeup of the commission allowed for a majority bloc of those aligned with him.

The 15-person panel was composed of four commissioners appointed by then-council President Eric Garcetti, four appointed by Villaraigosa and one appointed by each of the seven school board members.

Combined with his four, Villaraigosa had presumed allies in the appointees of Garcia, Tamar Galatzan, Nury Martinez and Richard Vladovic — the members he backs on the board.

Mike Trujillo, a veteran political consultant and lobbyist and Vladovic's appointee, didn't contest that the mayor enjoyed a working majority on the commission. "But I would term it more as a reform-minded bloc than the mayor's bloc," he said.

Some said this left the others on the panel without clout.

"It was quite obvious to me from the very first vote that the whole committee would be stacked in favor of the mayor and whatever he wanted," said Jimmie Woods Gray, appointed by Garcetti.

Trujillo pointed out that other board members might sympathize with Kayser's fate but were less likely to intercede once their own issues were resolved.

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