What you need to know about the upcoming school board elections

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On your March 7 ballot, you’ll face an school board election that raises questions about the role of charter schools.

Pro-charter forces led by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan are pouring big bucks into the races, most notably there’s an all-out effort to unseat Board President Steve Zimmer.

The powerful teachers union, meanwhile, is funding candidates who oppose charters.

Los Angeles Times education reporter Howard Blume tells KCRW that there’s a lot riding on the outcome of the three contests:

Howard Blume: What‘s at stake here is possible control of school majority between candidates who are supported by the teacher’s union and candidates who are supported by charter school forces. And it seems like odd state of being that we come down to this that we have these two incises political parties not democratic and republicans but teachers union and charter schools.

KCRW: It’s been that way for a little while too, has it?

Howard Blume: It has. Certainly the previous regular election and the special election before that. The big spenders in the election and by “big spending” I mean independent campaigns where there were no spending limits they were not controlled by the candidates themselves. Yes, the big spenders have been the charter schools forces first and then the teachers union next.

KCRW: Okay, so who’s running?

Howard Blume: In district too we have an incumbent, Monica Garcia, she is the longest serving board member and she is seen also as an ally of the charter schools and she has two opponents: Lisa Alva, a teacher at Roosevelt High School and Carl Peterson, who is a businessman and a parent and even though there is a teacher in this race, the teachers union didn’t feel they can win this against the entrenchment incumbent Monica Garcia. She is getting a fair amount of financial backing but her opponents are not. Then we have District 4, we have an incumbent in that race as well that’s Steve Zimmer, he has won two terms in office. And the most spending is going on in this race, because the charter school forces are determined to get him out of office. They are spending hugely to make that happen. And then the teachers union is spending heavily to keep Zimmer in. And his challengers are a- a person who owns a PR firm and a parent of some young children Gregory Mark Diane. And then we have two candidates who are endorsed by the pro-charter forces which is a little unusual. One of them is Nicolas Melvin, he worked for two years as a teacher in LA Unified for teach for America and that program. And then he got a law degree. And the other candidate is Allison Holdorff Polhill, who was a board member of Palisades Charter High School. The other seat is School Board District 6. This is an open seat because the incumbent Monica Ratliff is running for city council. So the big spenders in this race and by big spenders I don’t necessarily mean them, I mean spending on their behalf. First of all was Kelly Gomez, she is a teacher at a charter school. And not surprisingly, she is being backed very heavily by the pro charter forces. And then the teachers’ union candidate in this race is a community organizer, Imelda Padilla.

KCRW: Former Mayor, Richard Riordan had said that he was going to spend a million dollars to defeat board president Steve Zimmer, is that his personal money or is he backing a political action committee that’s raising that money?

Howard Blume: Both! I mean he has spent more than a million dollars as it turns out. He has spent a million dollars directly to a campaign who’s whole purpose is to defeat Steve Zimmer and Richard Riordan is also giving money to the 501C4 organizations is that is ciliated with the California charter schools associations. Riordan’s big he probably figures he wants to make an impact. He’s not getting any younger and he’s determined to spend his money to make an impact.

KCRW: You mentioned that this election could shift balance the power on the school board in terms of charter policies. How would it change things on the ground level of the district?

Howard Blume: Well first of all, let’s look on what is on the ground level of the district. LA Unified has more charters and more charter school students than any other school district in the country. But it’s still certainly 16 percent of the district enrollments, so far. If you get a pro charter board, they could open the doors for lots more charters opening for schools to convert to charter status. And also for charters to have access to buildings that are owned by the school district.

KCRW: Is the debate over charter schools obscuring other important issues facing LAUSD?

Howard Blume: Yes it is. Because essentially you have two interest groups for whom charter schools are the main issue and they’re doing all the spending in the campaign. There are all sorts of issues including: how to get to students to graduation, and whether these record graduation rates that the district has delivered in the last year, whether that’s the result of lower standards and how these kids are going to fair in higher education, whether they would qualify for higher education, and be able to stay in school. The district also has high percentage of English learners who have special needs. The district also now has to worry about families of students who might be deported or members of families of students who might be deported under new policies with the Trump administration.