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How mega-spending and alleged scandals could influence LAUSD school board elections

A woman surrounded by many others, speaks into a megaphone during a rally
L.A. school employees from unions representing teachers and non-teaching workers rally together prior to a strike last year. But for the approaching March election, these unions — United Teachers Los Angeles and Local 99 of SEIU — are facing off against each other in a big-money contest as they back different school-board candidates.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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As two leading Los Angeles school board candidates grapple with blows to their campaigns — antisemitic tweets for one and an investigation that temporarily removed another from her counseling job — outside groups continue to flood races with spending to win influence over the nation’s second-largest school system.

Four seats, a majority of the seven-member Board of Education — are on the ballot for the election that ends March 5. The top two finishers in each contest will be on the ballot in November.

Late campaign turbulence in two competitive races has complicated the picture.

For more than a week, Kahllid Al-Alim, running for the District 1 seat representing much of South L.A. and southwest L.A., has been dealing with the revelation that he retweeted and “liked” social media posts that promoted antisemitic content, glorified guns and celebrated pornographic images.

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He spoke about his social media activity again Tuesday in remarks that seem to stake out a different position than what he stated in a series of apologies.

Better news arrived this week for Graciela Ortiz, campaigning in District 5, which runs north to south along the eastern portion of the school system. She is back at work, as of Tuesday, as a counseling administrator for L.A. Unified, the district confirmed. Officials had removed her from her job pending a confidential investigation. Ortiz has declined to comment about the matter.

It’s not clear why the district launched an investigation, but it began shortly after a civil lawsuit was filed in January alleging Ortiz and a political ally are liable for the actions of a campaign worker, who pleaded no contest to sexual misconduct with an underage volunteer. A spokesman for Ortiz called the lawsuit frivolous and politically motivated.

Ortiz also has declined to answer questions about the case.

Both Ortiz and Al-Alim remain strong contenders in large measure because of money spent on their behalf.

Both have benefited from campaigns run by political action committees, which have long been a prime influence in electing L.A. school board members.

Unions and charter-school allies spent more than $5.1 million total through Wednesday, about seven times more than what candidates had spent on their own campaigns.

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Two races — District 1 and District 3 — feature direct, high-cost face-offs between those who ally with charter schools and those who side with the teachers union. Charters are privately operated public schools that compete for students with traditional public schools. Most charters are nonunion.

In a third race, the teachers union is facing off against the union that represents the most non-teaching workers.

“There are four seats up and charters are defending one and the unions are defending three,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “Charters have a chance to really change the balance of power.”

District 1

The teachers union has suspended its campaign on behalf of Al-Alim and may formally withdraw its endorsement on the night of March 4, the evening before the conclusion of voting.

On Tuesday, in an online campaign forum, Al-Alim reiterated his apology, but he also seemed to backtrack from renouncing his positive tweet about a Nation of Islam book that has been widely described as antisemitic.

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“I have made an apology for offending my Jewish brethren for the book that the Nation of Islam wrote on the transatlantic slave trade,” Al-Alim said at the forum, sponsored by the L.A. chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. “Many people took offense to that and thought that it was antisemitic. I thought it was a piece of history that I believed should have been taught in the Advanced Placement African American History course. I misspoke when I said that it should be in the Black Student Achievement Plan.”

He also spoke about his likes of pornographic posts: “What has been portrayed in the media has been pretty much placed out of context. It is not a history of pornography.”

He added: “I am out here right now basically, you can just say, doing damage control. ... Some may find the book offensive, but again, it is my perspective. It is something that I believe that I have every right to put forward and just you know without any apprehension let everybody know that I am not antisemitic and that I will continue with the campaign. And I’m not ashamed of anything.”

With its past investment in a campaign for Al-Alim, United Teachers Los Angeles “finds itself in a really tough position,” said UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard, who commented before the Tuesday night remarks by Al-Alim and who has endorsed a different candidate. “Now they have rebuked him — so the opening is there for other candidates to make the runoff.”

Before standing down on its on-the-ground campaign efforts, UTLA spent about $661,000 to try to elect Al-Alim and he remains the officially endorsed candidate — at least until the outcome of Monday’s emergency meeting of the union’s 250-member House of Representatives.

“UTLA may have stopped their campaigning for Al-Alim, but a lot of voters have already heard from them,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at USC, Berkeley and Pepperdine. “Unless they decide to weigh in against him at the last minute with a very heavy ad buy, he could still end up in the runoff.”

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There are seven candidates on the ballot in District 1. Two spoke out quickly and strongly against Al-Alim.

“There is no room in our community and certainly no room on the Los Angeles Unified School Board for this dangerous speech and ideology,” DeWayne Davis said in a statement. “The poison of antisemitic ideology ravages us all.”

“We have to keep Kahllid Al-Alim off the school board and away from our children,” Sherlett Hendy Newbill urged her supporters in an email.

Most candidates in that race don’t have nearly the campaign resources that Al-Alim benefited from to get a message out to voters.

One who does is Didi Watts.

Two Sacramento-based PACs called Kids First and a charter schools PAC have spent $486,866 on Watts’ behalf. Watts has emphasized the breadth of her leadership roles in traditional, charter and private schools. She currently serves as chief of staff for board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who is on the ballot in District 7.

Watts has not commented on the Al-Alim situation.

Despite limited financial resources, Davis and Hendy Newbill may have an opportunity to be heard above the big-money din if voters — and teachers — turn away from Al-Alim.

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Both appear to have stature within Black community organizations — and Black voters are the largest voting group in District 1, according to figures compiled by the firm PDI, which specializes in election data and analysis.

Davis has been a principal and senior administrator in L.A. Unified and other school systems; Hendy Newbill, a teacher, dean and department chair spanning a long career at Dorsey High School. They also have helpful endorsements: Davis is supported by law enforcement and some other unions. Hendy Newbill is endorsed by four current board members, including District 1 incumbent George McKenna, for whom she works as a senior aide.

Also on the ballot is home-schooling parent Christian Flagg, a behind-the-scenes figure in community and student activism to boost the district’s Black Student Achievement Plan and to eliminate school police — efforts that Al-Alim also has been involved in.

Rounding out the District 1 candidates are John Aaron Brasfield, a longtime special education assistant and athletics coach and tutor and former teacher Rina Tambor.

District 3

In the west San Fernando Valley, two well-funded candidates have an overwhelming advantage over three others. Two-term incumbent Scott Schmerelson has benefited from an independent campaign of more than $580,000 by UTLA. A competing PAC has spent $870,080 on behalf of middle school math teacher and former charter-school executive Dan Chang.

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The pro-Chang funding derives from a Sacramento-based political action committee also called Kids First, though it is a different committee than the one supporting Watts in District 1. This PAC is bankrolled mostly by retired businessman Bill Bloomfield, who typically favors the same candidates as charter advocates.

This race has the classic structure of charter-school advocates versus the teachers union — although Bloomfield has said consistently that he considers more than a candidate’s position on charters.

District 5

Here the big money is union versus union. UTLA has spent about $670,000 to back teacher Karla Griego. Local 99 of Service Employees International Union has spent nearly $760,000 in support of Ortiz. Local 99 members include custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, teacher aides and security aides.

The charter advocates appear to favor Ortiz — the Kids First group working in District 1 also endorses Ortiz.

At a Monday campaign forum sponsored by parent groups in Eagle Rock, Ortiz, who also is an elected City Council member in Huntington Park, deflected direct comment on her job-related LAUSD investigation and the civil lawsuit.

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“It’s political season, right?” Ortiz said. “The reality is that: Don’t believe everything you read in the news. The reality is that when it’s campaign season, it’s always when the media would like to show up and write stories, but whenever we’re doing great work in the community — I’ve been an elected official for nine years and when COVID-19 hit and we can get zero resources” in southeast L.A. County, “the media never came. Never came to talk to us, but here they are now.”

Bell City Councilman and longtime high school teacher Fidencio Gallardo has gained the support of some rank-and-file teachers and pro-union parents who have splintered off from UTLA. Gallardo has recently served as a senior aide to retiring District 5 board member Jackie Goldberg, who has endorsed him.

Local 99 has launched a negative campaign against Gallardo, spending $38,441.

Retired principal Victorio Gutierrez is the fourth candidate, describing himself as pro-union but anti-special-interest politics.

District 7

District 7 runs from South L.A. to the Harbor. Only one candidate has big-money support and that’s one-term incumbent Tanya Franklin. Bloomfield has spent more than $1 million on her behalf, including nearly $350,000 in a negative campaign against Franklin’s one opponent, teacher Lydia Gutierrez, who has raised $3,484.

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