By Brandon Lowrey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles school board candidates backed by education reform groups drew mixed results in a primary election that could decide how far the second-largest school district goes in revamping teacher evaluations and expanding charter schools.
About $6 million was spent in campaigns for the three board seats up for grabs in Tuesday's race, seen as a potential turning point for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in a national movement to overhaul public education.
Reformers, backed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Coalition for School Reform, want to expand charter schools and change the way the district hires, evaluates and fires teachers. They faced opposition from the local teacher's union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which has funded its own slate of candidates.
Voters handed Villaraigosa and his allies one victory outright, one defeat and one draw that will be decided in a runoff election in May.
The current board president, Monica Garcia, backed by the reform movement, retained her seat with 56 percent of the vote. Fellow incumbent Steve Zimmer, a moderate, drew 52 percent to fend off a bid by reform challenger Kate Anderson.
In the contest for a third, open seat, reform candidate Antonio Sanchez was the top vote-getter in his race, garnering 43 percent of the tally, to advance to a run-off election against union-endorsed candidate Monica Ratliff.
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy has managed to win concessions from the union to factor student scores into performance evaluations for instructors. But Deasy's future at the district is seen as potentially hinging on the results of the school board election.
"A lot of the urban school systems (across the nation) are sitting and waiting to see what's going to happen in Los Angeles Unified before they move forward with their own reform agendas," said Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University.
New York City's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, donated $1 million to Villaraigosa's coalition. Former District of Columbia schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee's nonprofit StudentsFirst kicked in $250,000 to the same group through its political action committee.
Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, lamented that outside donations turned the school board election into a national education-policy battleground.
"This isn't a national referendum," he said. "It's a local school board election. It's about local issues."
Fletcher said his union and teachers fear that "rational conversation about what's best for kids in Los Angeles" will be "drowned out by a flood of money from people who really don't have an idea about what needs to happen."
The most costly race was the battle between Anderson and Zimmer. Anderson received more than $250,000 in contributions, and Zimmer over $82,000. The big spending came from outside groups, who spent about $2.6 million on that race alone.
Zimmer, who has claimed neutral ground in clashes between reformers and unions, said he believes the reformers targeted him because they wanted to push forward quickly with their agenda and he was not loyal to either side.
"I think the more orthodox camp in the reform community saw an opportunity with me, not because I've been awful on reform issues, but precisely because I had challenged the union on several issues and they know the support on my side would be soft," he said.
The 11 candidates for the three seats have received more than $946,000 in direct contributions, while outside groups, including teachers' unions and reform advocates, have spent some $5.2 million to influence the elections, according to figures from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
Garcia, a strong supporter of Deasy, received the most contributions of any candidate. She took in nearly $430,000, which was about nine times the total in direct contributions of all her four opponents' war chests combined.
She and dozens of her supporters gathered at her storefront headquarters, located in a strip mall in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights, celebrating with loud Latin and dance music as they watched the election results roll in.
"We have to move faster and go further to continue to respond to parents and students," Garcia told Reuters at the event.
(Writing by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Andrew Hay)