Billionaires Are Shoveling Money Into a Los Angeles School Board Race

Outside billionaires have flooded a single school board race in Los Angeles with $10 million. That’s because they know the race is about more than just the swing vote on the LA school board — it’s about the future of public education.

A pedestrian walks past the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District on October 3, 2022. A board of education race in the city is being flooded with billionaires' cash. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, an audio leak exposed three Latino Los Angeles city councilmembers and the president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor engaging in shockingly casual racism behind closed doors. Their comments were targeted at indigenous Mexican residents of LA and the two-year-old black son of a fellow councilmember, among others. They also blatantly discussed their motivations for redistricting along political lines.

While journalists have made much of the racist content of the recordings, they’ve paid little attention to how political formations like the “little Latino caucus,” as Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera dubbed the crew in the leaked audio, fit into the larger project of the Democratic Party in California and the nation. Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, and Gil Cedillo conspired with Herrera to draw district lines in a way that protected both their own political power and the interests of their allies in private real estate development and political philanthropy. In LA, similar partnerships between business, labor, and politicians have generated massive private wealth and political power for a few on the backs of renters and working families — and at the expense of public education.

Nowhere is this partnership more blatant than in LA’s most expensive district election of 2022. That election is not for city council, the state assembly, or state senate, but for Board District 2 of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In that competition, the local nonprofit director María Brenes has benefited from over $8.8 million in independent contributions from just three donors. Of those, the two largest individual contributions originate from two billionaires: Reed Hastings of Netflix and the real estate mogul Bill Bloomfield.

Brenes, who sat on the city council redistricting commission at the center of the controversial recordings, is reportedly the handpicked successor to former LAUSD board president Mónica García. Brenes’s husband, Luis Sanchez, served as García’s chief of staff, while García herself is the former chief of staff to East LA city councilmember José Huizar, who is currently under federal indictment for thirty-four counts of fraud, money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion for his role helping downtown developers put up skyscrapers against objections of the city council and a local building trades union. This East LA political machine has birthed Huizar, de León, García, former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa— and, now, Brenes.

National Money and Local Politics

This cycle has seen enormous sums of money pumped into LA politics, with shopping mall developer Rick Caruso fronting $62 million for his mayoral campaign and his opponent Karen Bass breaking records with $9 million in public donations for her own bid for the Getty House. But those competitions are for citywide office, so while those sums are astronomical, they’re also intelligible. More staggering is the $10.5 million so far that has flooded into the competition for District 2 of the Board of Education.

Just $2 million of this comes from teachers’ unions. So far, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has donated a little more than $1 million to Brenes’s opponent Rocío Rivas and has been campaigning for her election. The two state teachers’ union federations — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers — and the national American Federation of Teachers have together contributed a total of $930,000 to Rivas. That puts total contributions in the race for LAUSD Board District 2 at four-to-one trending against the teachers’ candidate.

Why are out-of-town billionaires making such large commitments to influence the outcome of this school board election?

The answer is the size and power of the nation’s second-largest system of public education. With annual expenditures of over $11.6 billion planned for the 2022-23 fiscal year, the LAUSD board commands a budget equal to the City of Los Angeles itself, which proposes to spend $11.8 billion for the same period. As a power player in local contracting, LAUSD serves as a training ground for the city’s political cadre. Former city council president Martinez started her career representing Board District 6 of LAUSD. Huizar, former LAUSD board president, represented Board District 2 before replacing Villaraigosa on the city council.

This year’s winner in LAUSD District 2 — comprising both the city’s increasingly gentrified areas of Sliver Lake, Echo Park, and Downtown as well as the working-class neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles — will exercise the swing vote on the powerful board of education. For over a decade, the board has been divided between allies of the embattled local teachers union and those of political philanthropists such as Hastings, billionaire Eli Broad, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the GAP’s Doris Fisher, and the Walton family. In 2017, these billionaires succeeded in electing Nick Melvoin to District 4 with $2.4 million in independent expenditures, an amount already nearly doubled in the current Brenes campaign for District 2. In 2020, Bloomfield spent more than $5.5 million alone to support Board District 7 incumbent Tanya Ortiz Franklin and to attack candidates friendly with the teachers’ union.

The incumbent in the current race for Board District 2 is García, who has reached her term limit. García was president of the board of education during its battles with the teachers’ union from 2012 to 2020, including the historic six-day strike in 2019. Brenes, who is running to replace her, has made her career in the same circles of the East LA Democratic Party that the Department of Justice and the recent leaked recordings have broken open to public scrutiny.

What is Brenes’s Experience?

Supporters of Brenes argue that she’s the candidate with the most relevant experience for the job. The Los Angeles Times, for example, declared that “Brenes is the better choice because she has worked for years to bring urgency to improving educational outcomes in underperforming schools.” The paper praised her role in devising “creative solutions” for the district’s challenges, saying her “experience is needed now more than ever.”

It is true Brenes has extensive experience working in East Los Angeles politics. In 2007, for example, after the California Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a state law then mayor Villaraigosa successfully lobbied for to remove control of LAUSD from its elected board, Brenes worked with both politicians to salvage part of Villaraigosa’s program.

Supporters of Brenes argue that she’s the candidate with the most relevant experience for the job.

The mayor had sought to place control of LAUSD in his office, removing public schools from the elected board of education, with García the sole board member supporting the proposal. When that project was struck down in court, Mayor Villaraigosa turned to private philanthropy — the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, and Goldman Sachs — to raise charity funding to place a select number of schools under control of a nonprofit allied with his office, the Partnership for LA Schools (PLAS). As the Los Angeles Times reported, “One selling point for participants is that the elected LA Board of Education would have no direct control over the money.”

García had served as chief of staff to Huizar, the three-term city councilmember indicted by the Department of Justice in 2020 for campaign-finance felonies. In her role as LAUSD president, García helped to win salary increases for board members, a feat celebrated in the recently leaked recordings. As Cedillo repeats three times in the audio, “Mónica made everybody rich.”

“Creative Solutions”

After winning election to Board District 2 in 2006, García hired as her chief of staff the nonprofit director Luiz Sanchez (Brenes’s husband). Brenes then campaigned to ensure that her East LA schools were included in PLAS, appearing with Villaraigosa and García in 2007 and asking parents to vote for membership in the philanthropy-controlled scheme. Then, in 2011, with Villaraigosa’s support, Sanchez ran unsuccessfully for LAUSD Board District 5 against the UTLA-backed candidate Bennett Kayser.

In 2012, García was elected president of the LAUSD board of education, a position she held until 2020. By 2014, when a reform leadership won control of UTLA, García committed the board to fighting the teachers’ union program of reducing class sizes and raising educator salaries. In 2019, after collective bargaining with UTLA reached an impasse, García traveled with LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner to Sacramento to lobby the state government to prevent a strike in LA.

Brenes, meanwhile, has enjoyed an influx of donations from the same philanthropists that successfully placed García and her allies in office and have sought to control the future of LAUSD. Since 2007, her nonprofit InnerCity Struggle has received at least $1.2 million from the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, whose major donors include the Gates Foundation. Since 2017, InnerCity Struggle has received over $450,000 in donations from the Broad Foundation, the Partnership for LA Schools, Great Public Schools Now (a foundation endowed by the Gates Foundation), and the real estate developer Bloomfield. After Brenes won $1 million from the City of Los Angeles to construct a new headquarters for InnerCity Struggle, Councilmember Huizar attended the opening ceremony in 2019, nine months after his home had been raided by the FBI.

Brenes was instrumental in winning membership of East LA schools such as Roosevelt High School and Mendez High School into PLAS, where they enjoy substantial program funding — and managerial control — from private philanthropy. Their success is not shared by the vast majority of LA public schools. These are the “creative solutions” endorsed by the Los Angeles Times: success for low-income communities on the basis of private solutions controlled by the charity of regional oligarchs.

Such “creative solutions” essentially amount to making common cause with donors whose ultimate aim is to end democracy in public education entirely. Northern states with cities facing capital flight such as Detroit and Philadelphia have taken control of local school districts to impose severe cuts to salaries, staffing, and pension obligations — cuts which elected leaders have been unwilling to undertake. Charter school boards, by contrast, are usually appointed by their owners rather than elected.

As Hastings, who has donated a total of $29 million to the California Charter School Association (CCSA), argued in 2017, “That elected dynamic is what is hurting urban school districts . . . Governance is the fundamental change with charter public schools.” Despite being essentially opposed to elected school boards altogether, in 2015 Hastings had already contributed $3.9 million to the CCSA, which was the single largest donor to the successful campaign to elect Refugio Rodriguez to LAUSD Board District 5 against the UTLA-backed Kayser. During 2017, Rodriguez came under investigation and was convicted of fraud in his campaign finance disclosures; the Netflix CEO gave $75,000 to Rodriguez’s legal defense fund that year. The same year he denounced elected school boards, Hastings contributed $8.7 million to the CCSA, again the single largest donor to the successful Nick Melvoin campaign for LAUSD Board District 4.

Unsurprisingly, during the current election for Board District 2, Hastings has already donated $100,000 to a committee supporting Brenes as well as $1.8 million to the CCSA. The largest individual source of Brenes’s funding as of October 17 consists of $2 million from Bloomfield.

Labor’s Junior Partnership

This nexus of political philanthropy, local business elites, and city elections is the basis for many a local Democratic Party machine. In LA, it has formed a pillar of the governing coalition of the city. The success of this coalition is explicit in the career of Martinez, one of the councilmembers exposed in the leaked audio. In 2015, Martinez received nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions from local business groups including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Martinez’s husband Gerardo Guzmán, meanwhile, runs a political consulting firm whose clients include the sheriff’s office as well as the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now, a donor to Brenes’s 501(c)(3).

While the teachers’ unions oppose Brenes and support Rivas, they’re not the only labor unions in town. As is clear from the leaked recording, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is not opposed to this political machine — it’s part of it. Unsurprisingly, the Federation has gone against the teachers’ unions and endorsed Brenes. So have dozens of other labor unions in LA, with the SEIU International office even making a sizable donation to Brenes via Local 99.

The great question for organized labor is why it has calculated the benefits of participating in this partnership to be greater than the costs to the city’s working class. The answer is that over the decades, many unions have found it more advantageous to play games, cut deals, and preserve their own political leverage than to think holistically about advancing the social rights of workers and their families — including the universal right to democratically controlled, tax-funded public education.

In 2015, the Federation donated nearly $100,000 to Martinez. Under her tenure at the LAUSD board, she voted to cut funding for Adult Education, a program whose primary beneficiaries are members of the working class. As city council president, she has led the council to strip funding from the Housing Department’s enforcement of the Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordnance, intended to protect tenant organizing, and framed the pervasive and growing issue of homelessness as a matter of crime and mental health rather than access to affordable housing.

Since 2009, the hourly wage for workers at the twenty-fifth percentile in LA has increased from $10.82 to $14.63, or 35 percent, while the median rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased from $1,486 to $2,113, or 42 percent. In 2009, workers at the fourth quartile of wage rates required a forty-five-hour week to qualify as not “rent burdened” — that is, to earn enough to pay 30 percent of their monthly income in rent. In 2020, workers in the same position had to work a forty-eight-hour week to earn the same amount. The trend shows no sign of reversal.

In this period the Federation has worked as a junior partner with the bosses to govern a city characterized by rents rising faster than wages. Rather than challenging incumbents like Cedillo, it has elected to sit on the sidelines, waiting to cut deals over replacements. Meanwhile, the business allies it has chosen have been spending millions to oppose labor priorities such as 2020’s Prop 15, which would have raised public revenues from a tax on commercial real estate, and this year’s city measure ULA, which could amount to a historic authorization of public housing in Los Angeles.

That Faustian bargain with the owners and the bosses has finally come into the open with the recent audio leak. But whether power shifts depends on the public. The June primaries in LA sent a clear message to the machine politicians — with, for example, Cedillo being defeated by progressive challenger Eunisses Hernandez. Whether the public can see this message through will depend in no small part on a school board election that the donors have selected as a top priority, making the underdog campaign Rivas one of historic importance.