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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Los Angeles School Board Scandal Could Upend Plans By Charter Backers to Take Over Public Schools

A Los Angeles School Board Scandal Could Upend Plans By Charter Backers to Take Over Public Schools:

THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY of Los Angeles County filed criminal charges this month against Ref Rodriguez, the school board president of the nation’s second-largest public school district. Accused of laundering money into his 2015 political campaign with the help of his cousin, Rodriguez faces three felony charges and 25 misdemeanors.
It’s not your typical money-laundering case. In fact, it’s one that veteran campaign consultants and money-in-politics watchdogs have been calling the most bizarre they’ve ever seen. And it was part of a successful multimillion dollar, multi-cycle campaign by pro-charter school advocates to seize control of the board.
Run-of-the-mill campaign money laundering involves donors funneling cash in through business associates, family, or friends. In this instance, Rodriguez allegedly funneled more than $24,000 of his own money into his campaign, despite facing no contribution limits himself. According to the 14-page complaint filed on September 13, Rodriguez reimbursed 25 friends and relatives, who each contributed between $750 and $1,100 – and signed a form under penalty of perjury that they had all been legitimate campaign donors.
Following his 2015 victory, Rodriguez became the first charter school operator to join the Los Angeles school board. He was backed by the well-heeled charter school movement, which spent more than $2 million to help elect him. This past spring, education reform advocates won three more seats, giving the board a slim pro-charter majority for the first timeever. Rodriguez was then elected board president in July.
In response to the felony charges, Rodriguez announced that he would step down as president, but remain on the seven-person school board, thus preserving the charter faction’s grip on power. United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union, is now calling on Rodriguez to resign entirely, while some Rodriguez allies say the whole thing is being blown way out of proportion.

The struggle over the school board, and consequently for public education in Los Angeles, reflects larger proxy battles playing out in school systems across the United States. These fights typically pit so-called education reform advocates against backers of traditional public schools and teachers unions. Messy money-in-politics scandals have come to be defining features of these fights, as corporate money and funds from stratospherically wealthy activists flood in to what was once the sleepy politics of public education. How this all plays out in California will almost surely affect education politics elsewhere. 
Ref Rodriguez's announcement to step down as Board President posted on Twitter.
Ref Rodriguez’s announcement to step down as board president posted on Twitter.

 THERE WERE RED flags back in 2015 that something was amiss with political contributions to Rodriguez’s campaign. KPCC, the Southern California public radio station, reported early that year that Rodriguez had collected $21,000 in donations from employees of his charter school network, Partnerships to Uplift Communities. “Most striking, a handful of his workers – a janitor, maintenance worker, tutor — are donating at or near the contribution limit, $1,100,” KPCC wrote.

When asked in February 2015 about the generous donations he had received from his former employees, Rodriguez stressed that the contributions had not been coerced and would not be reimbursed. “I know for many of them, this is a tremendous sacrifice,” he said at the time. “It’s just been sort of an outpouring of folks’ belief in me and what we are trying to do for the city.”
There are only two real explanations floating around for why Rodriguez would launder his own money. One is that he somehow missed the memo that candidates can donate as much as they want to their own campaign — which is unlikely. (Rodriguez has not explicitly denied the district attorney’s allegations.)
The more credible rationale is that early into his weeks-long campaign, he wanted to project an image of having more popular grassroots support than he actually had. And, by misrepresenting his donors, he could cast himself as more financially competitive than he actually was.
Harvey Englander, a longtime Los Angeles political consultant, says there’s a lot of pressure on candidates, especially first-time candidates, to show they’ve raised a lot of money by the time the first campaign finance reports are released. These reports are often treated as rough proxies for candidate viability, and when a candidate puts their own money into the race, it’s hard to know if that money will ever be spent, or if it’s just being used to create the illusion of a well-financed bid. But if there are dozens of people writing four-figure checks, well, that looks like a serious campaign.
“The only reason I could think of is that whoever advised Ref suggested he go find family members and others to contribute to his campaign because it would look very real, it would show a lot of community support, and you’d assume that money could be spent,” Englander tells The Intercept“I understand the reason for doing it, but it’s just so unusual. It’s really A Los Angeles School Board Scandal Could Upend Plans By Charter Backers to Take Over Public Schools:

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