By Brandon Lowrey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two of three Los Angeles school board candidates backed by education reform groups were leading on Wednesday in early results from a primary election that could determine how far the local school district goes in revamping teacher evaluations.
About $6 million has been spent in campaigns for the three open board seats, in an election seen as a fight to determine whether the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will continue as a leader in the 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. Villaraigosa's group and his allies have faced opposition from the local teacher's union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which has funded its own slate of candidates.
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy has managed to win concessions from the union to have student scores factor 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.
In the primary election held on Tuesday for three positions on the seven-member school board, the top two candidates in each race will advance to a runoff election in May unless any of them can win outright by securing a majority of the electorate.
With over 90 percent of precincts reporting, school board President Monica Garcia, who is fighting to keep her seat against four candidates backed by the teachers' union, led with 55.9 percent of the vote. Her closest competitor, Robert Skeels, stood at 15.2 percent.
In another race, incumbent school board member Steve Zimmer, who describes himself as a moderate and faced a candidate backed by the reform groups, was ahead with 52.6 percent of the early vote totals. His rival Kate Anderson had 47.4 percent.
And in a four-way race for the third school board seat up for grabs, the reform group-backed Antonio Sanchez was leading with 42.9 percent of the vote. His closest rival Monica Ratliff, who is endorsed by the teachers' union, stood at 34.1 percent.
Villaraigosa's group Coalition for School Reform has supported Garcia, Anderson and Sanchez.
"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 K. 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 the outside donations have 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."
As of this week, the 11 candidates for the three seats have received more than $946,000 in direct contributions while outside groups, including teachers' unions and reform groups, have spent $4.9 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.
At a strip mall in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights on Tuesday night, dozens of supporters gathered at her campaign headquarters sandwiched between a Thai restaurant and a clinic. Dance and Latin music blared from loudspeakers and people seemed upbeat about the vote, with Garcia ahead.
"We have to move faster and go further to continue to respond to parents and students," Garcia said.
Jessica Ng, a spokeswoman for Rhee's education reform group StudentsFirst, said a lot rides on the results of the vote.
"Given the uncertainty about the superintendent's tenure and job based on this election, it would be a shame if the outcome were to result in him losing his position," she said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Andrew Roche)