Three reform-minded candidates running for the Los Angeles Unified School District board raised nearly four times the donations of their union-backed opponents but won only one of the slots outright, with another headed to a runoff.
In Tuesday's election, reformer incumbent Monica Garcia retained her seat with 56 percent of the vote, as widely foreseen, but in a more unpredictable victory, union-supported incumbent Steve Zimmer retained his with 52.1 percent of the vote. He beat well-funded challenger, Kate Anderson, who ran on a progressive reform slate, and won 47.9 percent.
In a third race with no incumbent running, the candidates are headed to a runoff election in May since neither garnered more than 50 percent of the vote.
In an unusual development for a local school board campaign, the race had captured some national attention as it pitted a reform slate favoring policies such as revamping teacher evaluation, tenure and dismissal rules, against candidates backed by labor unions.
The results were some large donations by high profile donors from as far away as New York.
The Coalition for School Reform, which supported Garcia and Anderson, raised a $3.8 million war chest that included contributions of $1 million from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $250,000 from Students First, a reform group headed by former District of Columbia chancellor Michelle Rhee, and $250,000 from a subsidiary of News Corp.
Various labor groups donated less than $1 million to the teachers' union-backed slate.
Zimmer's victory was a feather in the cap of the teachers union, which had denounced the donations by outside groups as interference.
"Voters were not swayed by outsiders and their millions," said United Teachers Los Angeles in a statement. "School board seats are not for sale."
Anderson said even though her campaign was well funded, she was up against experienced politickers.
"These organizations know how to win elections," she said. "It wasn't just about the money."
Garcia defended the outside donations, saying the district is the nation's second largest and thus is closely watched. The funds helped her get her message out, but her campaign also used door-knocking and phone calls, she said.
"It is appropriate for people to keep an eye on LA," Garcia said. "We impact the country. LA has to be a leader in urban reform."
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University Los Angeles, noted that old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground union campaigning won out in the hotly contested Zimmer-Anderson race.
"School board races don't do well on a national level. The whole point of the school board is that it's local," he said.
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