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Anti-Semitism alleged in L.A. school board race as charter schools and teachers union face off
By HOWARD BLUME STAFF WRITER FEB. 25, 2020 5 AM
A million-dollar attack campaign is underway portraying Los Angeles school board member Scott Schmerelson as greedy, corrupt and determined to score fast cash by exposing children to deadly vaping and McDonald’s French fries.
One mailer — which included a cartoonish image of Schmerelson, who is Jewish, bedecked with a gold dollar-sign chain and holding a cigar and fistful of cash — came under fire as anti-Semitic and its use was halted.
Behind the surge of negative mailers in this West San Fernando Valley board district is an intense effort by charter school supporters to defeat Schmerelson and elect Marilyn Koziatek, a district parent who works at a local charter school managing community outreach efforts.
The pivotal race could tip the board majority toward the protection and expansion of charter schools, which enroll about 1 in 5 district students. Charter advocates are especially concerned about a new law that will soon give school boards more authority to reject new charters.
Members of the L.A. school board “clearly do not want high-quality charter schools operating in this city,” said Gregory McGinity, executive director of California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates. “They have pushed forward, where they can, to find opportunities to harass charter schools and to look to close them down and take away those opportunities from students…. That’s why we’re engaged in this election.”
The United Teachers Los Angeles union, in contrast, is putting money and effort behind Schmerelson, whom the union sees as a vital ally in its push against charter expansion and in favor of higher pay and increased school staffing.
Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl called the ads an “attempt to eviscerate Scott, a lifelong educator and champion of our public schools…. Scott’s likeness is literally made into a caricature, with clear anti-Semitic overtones.”
The unflattering image is buttressed by questionable claims, including that Schmerelson voted to triple his own salary — which is untrue — and that Schmerelson improperly “double-dipped” by earning a pension and a board salary. Schmerelson does receive both forms of compensation, but so have board members that CCSA Advocates has endorsed in previous elections.
“Horrified is the best answer to how I feel to see so much negative, ugly, false reporting and very sad that all this money is being spent on a negative campaign,” said Schmerelson, who was a retired principal before running for office. “Can you imagine how many teachers and aides and clerical staff we could have for that amount of money?”
A CCSA Advocates spokesman suggested that the other side has surfaced anti-Semitic stereotypes by depicting charter backers as “greedy, corporate billionaires.” Charter backers, said Luis Vizcaino, have included “American Jewish philanthropists.”
Koziatek distanced herself from the mailers with the offending image.
“I thought the mailer was done in a crude and inappropriate manner,” Koziatek said. “This is just another example of the sad reflection of the polarized climate of LAUSD politics that is not good for our kids.”
The pro-charter political action committee has spent more than $2 million in support of Koziatek, with close to $900,000 of that paying for the negative Schmerelson mailers. Schmerelson has benefited from independent campaign spending of more than $570,000, the vast majority from the teachers union.
While the union has so far not sent out attacks against Koziatek, its mailers have hit hard at the major funders of CCSA Advocates, who are a relatively small group of wealthy individuals, including Netflix founder Reed Hastings.
“We must expose the billionaires who attack our public schools and push a privatization agenda that leaves our most vulnerable students behind,” Caputo-Pearl said.
Union leaders frequently tie these funders to President Trump or they describe a threat posed by private, anti-union interests who would radically reshape public education to capture taxpayer dollars for corporate profits. However, many Democrats and the Obama administration also have supported the growth of charter schools. All three candidates in this race are Democrats.
The third candidate, Elizabeth Bartels-Badger, lacks major funding support. The longtime Democratic Party activist and mother of six runs a car repair shop with her husband. Bartels-Badger says she’s especially attuned to the needs of children with disabilities, after having had to navigate the system on behalf of her son, who is now in college.
Kenneth Ragsdale III, a district parent who fell just short of the required number of voter signatures to run against Schmerelson, has filed a series of complaints with the state Fair Political Practices Commission alleging wrongdoing by the incumbent. Ragsdale had been a board member for a charter school that was rejected in 2018 by L.A. Unified and the county education office.
At least 12 online articles by the Westside-based advocacy group Speak Up have focused on these filings, quoting parents outraged by Schmerelson’s alleged misconduct. These articles and quotes then have been highlighted in the deluge of negative campaign mailers.
Speak Up, a nonprofit, declined a request to identify its major funders, but it has been supported in the past by CCSA Advocates. And the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation provided the group with $125,000 in 2017 and $700,000 in 2018 — more than half of Speak Up’s budget for that year, according to tax filings.
Jenny Hontz, editor of the Speak Up site, said the articles on the FPPC complaints have reported on matters important to parents.
The complaints target alleged errors and alleged conflicts of interests related to financial disclosure forms that candidates and office holders must file. In one instance, Schmerelson failed to include the date of the purchase of stock from a tobacco company. As a result, the FPPC sent him a warning letter and Schmerelson filed a corrected form.
The FPPC is legally obligated to examine each of Ragsdale’s complaints. It also has examined whether Schmerelson should have recused himself from votes related to his stockholdings. The commission has not found anything improper, although its reviews are not yet complete.
The Speak Up articles also fault Schmerelson for owning socially irresponsible stock.
Schmerelson owned stock in McDonald’s and also supported requests by principals to continue their long-standing practice of holding school fundraisers at locations of the fast-food chain. All other board members voted to cancel the practice.
He also owned stock in Altria, a tobacco company that subsequently bought a 35% stake in the vaping company Juul. The articles and mailers suggest that Schmerelson put personal profits above the welfare of students. But Schmerelson voted in favor of suing Juul over the harm done to students by vaping.
Schmerelson has apologized for any errors on his forms and for past investment decisions. He now realizes, he said, that his investments should support socially responsible companies.
“I’m a born-again investor,” he said. “I am woke.”
Where candidates stand
Koziatek said Schmerelson is not moving fast enough on district problems, including low student achievement and a projected financial shortfall. Also, she said, school choice should not be limited by restricting charter schools. Her primary qualification, she said, is as a district parent of two children currently in school.
Although Koziatek has not worked as an educator, she’s worked on a campus — overseeing the outreach efforts at Granada Hills Charter High School. She helped develop an app to communicate with parents and has applied for grants. She’s also been active in some civic organizations.
Schmerelson relishes visiting campuses and helping to resolve their practical issues. He opposed the 2018 hiring of businessman Austin Beutner as superintendent, saying he would have preferred a schools chief with education experience. After a rocky start, the two are trying to work together, he said.
In terms of policy, Schmerelson has relied heavily on advice from leaders of the unions representing teachers and administrators, trying to balance their sometimes diverging interests. Despite his criticism of charters, Schmerelson has almost always followed the recommendation of the district’s charter-school division when voting on charter renewals and petitions for new schools, according to his staff.
Charters are privately operated and mostly nonunion, and they compete for students with district-operated schools. Supporters say charters offer high-quality choices for parents and provide needed competition that improves all schools. Critics say charters can destabilize public education by siphoning off students who are easier and less expensive to educate.
If no candidate wins a majority on March 3, the two top vote-getters will square off in a November runoff.