Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Castellanos
School board candidate Patricia Castellanos speaks to supporters at her campaign headquarters Tuesday in San Pedro.

Two school board races in Los Angeles appear headed to runoffs in November, setting up a pivotal election this fall for California’s largest school district. 

Four of Los Angeles Unified’s seven school board seats were on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary. To win a seat outright, candidates needed to earn a majority of votes. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters in each race advance to a runoff in the fall.

On the path to reelection Tuesday were incumbents Jackie Goldberg and George McKenna, according to results that election officials described as “semi-official.” Goldberg and McKenna were both backed by United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union in the district.

In the two races headed to runoffs, union-endorsed candidates Scott Schmerelson and Patricia Castellanos were leading their respective races and were in position to advance to November against candidates backed by charter school supporters.

Dean Logan, the Los Angeles County clerk, said in a statement Wednesday morning that results of elections in the county were “semi-official” since there are “still many outstanding votes to be counted.”

Schmerelson, an incumbent, held a comfortable lead as of Wednesday morning in District 3, which covers most of the West San Fernando Valley. But with 42.1 percent of the vote, Schmerelson was not on track to avoid a runoff. In second place with about 31.6 percent of the vote was Marilyn Koziatek, a staffer at Granada Hills Charter High School who won the endorsement of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates. 

Castellanos’ lead was much more narrow in District 7, which stretches from South Los Angeles to the Los Angeles Harbor. Castellanos, currently a staffer for Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, had earned 26.2 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning and three candidates were within six percentage points of her. In second place was Tanya Ortiz Franklin, with 23.8 percent of the vote.

Franklin is a staffer at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that manages 18 traditional public schools in LA Unified. Her campaign was boosted by spending from individual charter school advocates but she was not endorsed by the charter school association.

“Obviously it’s still early, and there’s a lot more votes to be counted, but we feel good,” United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in an interview Tuesday night.

Photo: Michael Burke/EdSource

Incumbent school board candidate Scott Schmerelson awaited results of Tuesday’s primary at his campaign headquarters in the West San Fernando Valley.

Franklin said Wednesday that it was still too early to tell if she would advance to the runoff in District 7.

“I’m very hopeful and the results overnight brought me a lot of joy,” she said. “But I still want to be cautious and realistic and absolutely wait until all the votes are counted.”

Koziatek said in an interview Wednesday that her campaign would wait to see more results before “making any assumptions” but acknowledged she was likely headed to a runoff against Schmerelson in District 3.

“For me, it was a success just to run and to be on the ballot,” she added. “And so the fact that this could go off into a runoff is really exciting.”

Leading up to Tuesday, the election attracted significant spending from charter school advocates and United Teachers Los Angeles. The two sides combined to spend about $9 million on the race, with most of that money going toward mailers and other advertisements, rather than directly to candidates. 

Now that two races are likely heading to runoffs, those groups are certain to continue spending significantly leading up to November.

Charter school advocates and the union are natural rivals in Los Angeles and often support opposing school board candidates. Charter school proponents seek further expansion of charter schools, while the union favors investment in traditional schools instead of opening new charter schools. 

Los Angeles Unified has more charter schools than any district in the United States, and adding to the stakes in this election is a new state law governing charter schools. Assembly Bill 1505, which takes effect in July, gives school districts more discretion to deny new charter school applications. 

Union-backed candidates have an opportunity to claim a majority on the next school board if they sweep all four races in the election. Charter-backed candidates need to win one race to win a majority. 

The three board members not up for election Tuesday — Kelly Gonez, Mónica García and Nick Melvoin — have all been previously endorsed by California Charter Schools Association Advocates, the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association. 

McKenna was unopposed on the ballot in District 1 and easily won another term Tuesday. In District 5, Goldberg, a close ally of the union and fierce critic of charter schools, was winning a clear majority early Wednesday, with 55.6 percent of the vote to challenger Christina Martinez Duran’s 44.4 percent.

In District 3, Schmerelson held a comfortable lead Wednesday morning but was short of a majority and appeared on track for a runoff with Koziatek. Also on the ballot was Elizabeth Bartels-Badger, a Democratic Party activist who was in third place with 26.3 percent of the vote.

Schmerelson performed well in Tuesday’s primary despite an aggressive push by the charter school association to unseat him in favor of Koziatek.

The charter school association spent about $2.7 million on advertisements in that race, including about $1.1 million on advertisements attacking Schmerelson. Those advertisements sometimes included false or misleading claims about Schmerelson, such as that Schmerelson “tripled his own pay” while on the school board. The salaries of school board members are in fact set by an independent Los Angeles city commission. 

One of the advertisements, which depicted Schmerelson holding cash and wearing a gold chain, was also denounced by Schmerelson as “blatantly anti-Semitic.”

Schmerelson’s campaign manager, Brent Smiley, in an interview Tuesday called the charter school association’s efforts in the race “the most vicious” campaign he has ever seen.

“They ran a candidate who has no business being on the school board. And so they don’t have any other way to win other than to purely fabricate all this about Scott,” Smiley said.

Gregory McGinity, a senior vice president of the California Charter School Association, on Wednesday said the group’s advertisements were helpful.

“I think all of the advertisements, all of the mailers that we did, provided important information,” he said.

However, Koziatek, who said her campaign had no role in the advertisements, called them “crude, inappropriate and unacceptable.”

The charter group’s spending far outpaced the $634,000 the union spent on advertisements advocating for Schmerelson in that race.

In District 7, Castellanos and Franklin narrowly held the top two spots. In third place was Mike Lansing at 20.7 percent and Lydia Gutierrez was in fourth at 20.1 percent. 

Lansing previously held the District 7 seat from 1999 to 2007 and is now the executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor. Gutierrez is a teacher in Long Beach. 

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Lansing

School board candidate Mike Lansing speaks at his election night party with LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn. Lansing would narrowly fail to advance to a runoff election if current results hold.

District 7 was a wide open race because incumbent Richard Vladovic is termed out and not eligible for reelection.

Castellanos said in an interview Tuesday night that if she were to advance to a runoff, her campaign would “continue to build a coalition with parents, teachers and other education stakeholders and engage voters across the district.”

In District 7, the union spent about $740,000 on advertisements supporting Castellanos leading up to Tuesday. 

The charter school association did not insert itself into that race, but Bill Bloomfield, a businessman based in Manhattan Beach with a history of supporting charter schools, spent significantly in the district. He spent $1.4 million on advertisements supporting Franklin and another $300,000 on advertisements backing Lansing. He also spent about $580,000 on advertisements opposing Castellanos.

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