The Los Angeles City Council races aren't the only game to watch in the March 8 citywide elections. In fact, they aren't even attracting the biggest bets.
Independent expenditures in the Board of Education races are about to top $1 million, compared with just over half a million raised in the fight for a city council seat.
School board elections in Los Angeles have changed considerably since a voter-approved charter amendment in 2007 that put a $1000 cap on individual contributions.
More than $928,000 in independent expenditures have been raised for the board races, far surpassing the money collected by the candidates themselves, which is about $247,000 according to data from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
During the last election cycle in which these school board seats were up for grabs and before the cap was in place, only about $5,500 in independent expenditures were reported. The candidates raised $7.17 million for their own campaigns.
This year two major forces are calling the shots. In one corner is United Teachers Los Angeles, a union representing about 45,000 teachers in the L.A. Unified School District. In the other is the Coalition for School Reform, a group formally designated in late December to support candidates aligned with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Public School Choice reform effort.
UTLA's Political Action Council of Educators (PACE) has spent about $341,000 in the Board of Education race. Nearly 80 percent of the PAC's money has gone to support incumbent Marguerite LaMotte in the 1st District race. AJ Duffy, president of UTLA, said the union supports LaMotte because "she is a true friend of public education and understands that teachers do work hard."
The teachers' union gave around $35,000 in support of candidates Jesus Escandon and John Fernandez before withdrawing those endorsements in late January. Escandon had failed to disclose a DUI back in the 1990s and Fernandez had been quiet about a few days spent in jail in 2001, when he was with two women suspected of shoplifting. He was never prosecuted. Escandon has since withdrawn from his race.
The teacher's union is also supporting Bennett Kayser in the 5th District race, the only open seat in the board elections.
The Coalition for School Reform has actually outspent UTLA's Political Action Council. It's tossed more than $446,000 into the fray to elect incumbents Tamar Galatzan (3rd District) and Richard Vladovic (7th), and it also supports Luis Sanchez for the open 5th District seat.
Villaraigosa's Public School Choice places new and low-performing schools up for bid to charter schools and school-operating organizations like the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. The Mayor has been fundraising for the coalition.
UTLA's Duffy said Public School Choice was also an important factor in UTLA's backing of Board of Education candidates; or more notably, the union's lack of support for Galatzan and Vladovic.
"We'll let them know that the school board members are elected not to give away our schools but to support them," Duffy said.