In a school board election that attracted national money and attention as a referendum on the reform policies of Supt. John Deasy, candidates who favored his agenda were leading in two of three races, according to early returns Tuesday evening.
If those results hold up, Deasy would maintain a fragile majority in support of his policies, which emphasize holding teachers more accountable for student achievement in the nation's second-largest school district.
The Board of Education race is "the sleeper of this election," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "It matters a great deal. And there are forces mobilized on both sides that are significant and opposed."
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Two-term incumbent and Deasy ally Monica Garcia was leading in early results in District 2, which encompasses downtown Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods. And Deasy backer Antonio Sanchez was collecting the most votes in those returns in District 6, in the east San Fernando Valley but could be headed toward a runoff.
In these races, other candidates could not compete for resources against the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee spearheaded by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It amassed a war chest that surpassed $3.8 million. The group supported Garcia, Sanchez and parent and attorney Kate Anderson.
Total spending by organizations independent of the candidates surpassed $5 million.
INTERACTIVE MAP: How your neighborhood voted
Campaign committees affiliated with United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union, spent close to $1 million, according to the City Ethics Commission. This included $150,000 from the American Federation of Teachers.
The costliest battle was in District 4, where the teachers union decided to stand against the coalition by supporting one-term incumbent Steve Zimmer against Kate Anderson.
Zimmer was ahead in the early returns in the district, which spans the Westside and the west San Fernando Valley.
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A few weeks ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1 million to Villaraigosa's slate. And the money kept coming — $300,000 from the California Charters Schools Assn.; $250,000 from StudentsFirst, the advocacy group headed by former District of Columbia Chancellor Michelle Rhee; and $250,000 from a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
The funding overshadowed large local contributions from traditional donors Eli Broad and A. Jerrold Perenchio, who have long sought to counteract the influence of the teachers union.
"The biggest donor was a non-L.A. mayor," Sonenshein said. "That gives this election a flavor that others didn't have. This feels more nationalized."
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The issues, too, are ones that have triggered debate in school districts across the country.
In a major revamp of teacher evaluations, Deasy has directed that student standardized test scores should count for 30% of a teacher's performance review. He also wants layoffs, when necessary, to be based on these evaluations rather than on seniority. An early attempt by Deasy to depart from a strict seniority system is being challenged in court.
The superintendent also supports changing state law so that school districts would have final authority over firing tenured teachers suspected of misconduct. Currently, a state commission can overturn a district decision.
In recent months, the superintendent has had a sometimes shaky majority on the seven-member school board. At stake in the election was Deasy's authority — perhaps even his job.
In the contest pitting Anderson against Zimmer, the coalition sought to provide Deasy with an enthusiastic ally in a race that drew more than $2.5 million in outside spending.
Although Zimmer has resisted attempts to fire Deasy and has voted for the vast majority of his proposals, he also has supported attempts by the teachers union to modify or soften them.
Much campaign money was used for negative ads, though Deasy's agenda was not explicitly mentioned. Zimmer, for example, was criticized for "building the most expensive school in U.S. history" with "talking benches."
In fact, the school is in Garcia's district and the board approved the school before Zimmer was elected. (The benches, in an adjoining exhibit in a memorial park, play archival audio.)
Union mail against Anderson accused her of leading a Republican stampede intent on a district "takeover." Her donors include Republicans, but Democrats also contributed. Anderson is a Democrat, though the board races are nonpartisan.
In the other races, the coalition wanted to flood voters with a well-financed message that would overpower all opposition.
Some unions also backed Sanchez, while UTLA simply sat out the east Valley race, even though Sanchez had secured coalition support in part through his own strong endorsement of Deasy.