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Political savvy vs. education skills in L.A. school board runoff

Antonio Sanchez, 31, has the former, which has helped him attract big support from labor, while Monica Ratliff, 43, has the latter, making her the favorite of educators.

May 17, 2013|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Monica Ratliff has a background as a legal-aid attorney and teacher in a school that serves mostly students from low-income families. Antonio Sanchez has a background in campaigns and ties to political figures. Last year he completed his master's degree in urban and regional planning at UCLA.
Monica Ratliff has a background as a legal-aid attorney and teacher in a…

The race for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education pits the political savvy of Antonio Sanchez against the education skills of Monica Ratliff. And when it comes to campaign resources, politics trumps all.

Sanchez, 31, has used his background in campaigns and ties to political figures to attract huge financial support from labor groups and a political-action committee headed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Ratliff, 43, has used her background as a legal-aid attorney and respected teacher in a high-performing school to impress editorial boards and educators.

In the March 5 primary, Sanchez claimed 44% of voters, with Ratliff next at 34%, setting up Tuesday's runoff.

The campaign spending has been lopsided for Sanchez. The Coalition for School Reform, the mayor's group, amassed more than $1 million for the runoff, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad the largest donors. To date, independent groups, including the L.A. County Federation of Labor and Local 99 of Service Employees International, have spent nearly $1.9 million for Sanchez.

His own fundraising totals about $132,000, according to the latest filing. Ratliff, meanwhile, has no outside campaign to help; she has raised about $42,000.

The candidates are vying to represent the east San Fernando Valley, a mostly working-class Latino area, on the seven-member board.

They don't have vast differences in their positions. Ratliff, however, has been inconsistent in her take on L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, saying most recently that she would not move to replace him. Sanchez is an avowed Deasy supporter — the key reason for his backing by Villaraigosa's allies. They support Deasy's efforts to limit seniority protections for teachers and they also back the superintendent's push to include student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

The county labor federation knows Sanchez from his service as a midlevel aide for last fall's successful campaign to defeat Proposition 32, a statewide anti-labor initiative. Sanchez also has the blessing of a phalanx of labor allies already in office.

United Teachers Los Angeles, which is sharply critical of Deasy, endorsed both candidates. Many teachers are upset that the union did not vigorously back Ratliff, the elected union leader at her school, even though she has not adopted the union position on some issues.

One factor was money — the union depleted its war chest to reelect incumbent Steve Zimmer in the March primary. Union officials said they were reluctant to borrow funds to contest a Sanchez victory that seemed inevitable — before Ratliff's strong primary showing.

But even without huge donations, the union could mobilize a small army of volunteers. Many individual teachers have volunteered for Ratliff, but the union's neutrality proved a massive benefit to Sanchez.

In union meetings, the leadership has said that Sanchez was being groomed for higher office by officials they needed to appease, especially if they wanted to prevail in the Legislature on laws affecting teaching evaluations and tenure rules, said members who were present.

Some high-level union members alleged that there was a deal for Sanchez to let UTLA choose his chief of staff — which top officials and Sanchez deny.

Some praise Sanchez's political instincts.

"He has the type of personality that is conducive to getting things done in a difficult political environment," said supporter Alex Reza, who was Sanchez's government teacher at San Fernando High. "He is a good listener and he sees perspectives of issues."

And Sanchez "shares the life experience of many of our students" — having entered local schools not speaking English.

Sanchez remembers this vividly: "I'll never forget the day I walked out of the apartment and thought: 'How in the world am I going to talk to anybody?'" Sanchez said.

Sanchez last year completed his master's in urban and regional planning at UCLA. Along the way, he was a field representative for a state legislator and for Villaraigosa.

"I'm used to being the youngest one in the room, with people either underestimating me or telling me I'm inexperienced," he said. "My passion is fueled by a very simple idea: We have to have more kids graduating from high school."

Newspaper editorial boards and some observers have concluded that Sanchez's resume is too thin for the job, especially when compared to Ratliff.

"We liked him, but his response to our questions lacked depth," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents district administrators. Ratliff "had a deep knowledge of teaching and learning. She was clear on the priorities of students in the district."

Ratliff, who is Latina and grew up in Arizona, won a scholarship to Columbia University, where she also earned her law degree. During work as a legal aid attorney, "something hit me like a lightning bolt," she said. "Poverty is the problem, and the solution is education."

She teaches fifth grade at San Pedro Street Elementary, a Los Angeles school that has achieved high test scores despite serving students from mostly low-income families.

On education matters, Ratliff said she's learned from her principal and her colleagues as well as her previous experience as a lawyer. What sets her apart, she said, is being "in the classroom for over a decade at a school that is much like many schools in the district — and that has been improving."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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