In the race to represent LAUSD District 5 — which covers a large portion of Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) — the spending conflict is between two major unions. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 99 and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) are the heavy hitters, with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the AFL-CIO, and various political action committees (PACs) joining in to spend almost $1.7 million on this race so far.

There are currently four candidates in the running for the District 5 seat on the LA Unified School District Board of Education. Teacher Karla Griego, pupil services administrator Graciela Ortiz, LAUSD school board education innovation deputy Fidencio Gallardo, and retired teacher Victorio Gutierrez.

The seat for District 5 is opening up because Jackie Goldberg, the current president of the board who holds the seat, is retiring. SEIU 99, which represents 50,000 service workers such as special education assistants and bus drivers, is backing Graciela Ortiz. UTLA, which represents more than 35,000 educators, is backing Karla Griego.

The conflict is somewhat unusual in that UTLA and SEIU 99 typically do not spend against each other and back different candidates, with the exception of the 2019 special election for the same seat. In the last decade, conflicts for this seat are typically between UTLA-backed candidates and candidates backed by pro-charter groups.

LA Public Press spoke to Griego, Gallardo, SEIU 99, and phone bankers from the Griego and Ortiz campaigns. LA Public Press attempted to reach Ortiz for comment but numerous attempts via phone, email, and Instagram were ignored. LA Public Press also approached her in person and asked questions during a virtual candidates forum, but Ortiz did not reply to requests for comment. 

LAUSD District 5

LAUSD’s District 5 encompasses a broad range of communities across the county.

It includes a large portion of SELA, including South Gate, Huntington Park, Cudahy, Bell, Maywood, Vernon, and parts of South Central. It also cuts through Downtown LA and Koreatown, all the way up to East Hollywood and Eagle Rock. 

The district covers a wide range of communities with varying economic backgrounds and concerns. The more densely-populated areas of the district are historically working class and consist of immigrant families.

What happened the last time the LAUSD District 5 seat was up for election?

The last time the LAUSD District 5 seat was up for grabs was during the 2020 regular election, when Goldberg remained in office. In the 2019 special election, which Goldberg ultimately won, spending on the race totaled to nearly $2.5 million in independent expenditures. The majority went to Goldberg and runoff candidate Heather Repenning. 

During this time, the SEIU spent money in opposition of both Goldberg and Ortiz, throwing its support behind Repenning, who the LA Times also endorsed. 

Many of the entities that supported Repenning in her run are currently backing Oritz, such as the SEIU and the Los Angeles School Police Association.

In the 2020 regular election for this same seat, both SEIU 99 and UTLA-backed Goldberg, who has served on the LAUSD school board, the LA City Council, and the California State Assembly in the past.

This race is shaping up to be reminiscent of one of the more recent battles for District 5 with UTLA and SEIU 99 facing off yet again. 

It is most common for the candidate backed by the more than 35,000 members that make up UTLA to come out on top, as reported by LAist.

According to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, nearly $1.7 million dollars have been spent on this election so far. Most of the funds spent fall under independent expenditure, which means that the funds were spent by a separate person or group in support or opposition of a candidate.

What has the race looked like so far?

Four candidates are facing each off in the race for the District 5 seat on the LAUSD school board: Griego, Ortiz, Gallardo, and Gutierrez.

A retired teacher hailing from South Gate, Gutierrez has sworn off raising funds or accepting donations for his campaign to remain neutral. According to his campaign site, Gutierrez says after working as a teacher in the southeast for 30 years, he best understands the issues students face. He promises to hold the LAUSD school board accountable for their actions and inaction, reducing class sizes to a 25-1 student-teacher ratio and expanding internship and job opportunities for youth. Staying true to his word, Gutierrez has not raised any funds, nor have there been any independent expenditures in support of his campaign.

Ortiz is an administrator in LA Unified’s pupil services department and a current council member for the City of Huntington Park. She began her career with LAUSD after receiving a masters in social work as a pupil services and attendance counselor in 2006. Ortiz is the only candidate for the District 5 school board seat who has never been a teacher at LAUSD. Ortiz has also been endorsed by the LA County Democratic Party and at least 3 police associations. Ortiz is also endorsed by Kids First, a PAC which has so far leaned toward pro-charter candidates. (Kids First has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on all three other open seats – LAUSD’s District 1, 3 and 7 – but nothing on the District 5 seat to date).

After first entering the realm of politics in 2015, Ortiz has sat on the Huntington Park City Council for nearly a decade, and served rotations as mayor from March 2016 to March 2017, and again from March 2021 to June 2022. This is Ortiz’s second campaign vying for the school board seat representing District 5; she previously ran and lost during the special election in 2019.

According to the Ortiz campaign website and phone bank callers, Ortiz promises to reduce class sizes; increase mental health services; bring more funding to the district; and create support for marginalized students who are struggling with homelessness, in foster care, or experiencing other issues that can cause chronic absenteeism.

According to SEIU 99 executive director Max Arias, union members are also going out in person to support the Ortiz campaign with door knocking, canvassing, and phone banking.

SEIU 99 has a vetting process to choose the candidate they support beginning with an interview and questionnaire reviewed by a committee of rank and file members, after which there is a town hall that all LAUSD members are invited to attend. The SEIU only considers candidates that seek them out for endorsement. Only Ortiz, Gallardo, and Griego attended the SEIU town hall. 

Arias expressed that members of SEIU 99 were “unanimously” in support of Ortiz, citing that she was the candidate with the clearest vision on how to resolve the issues most important to them, which include addressing the lack of investment in important roles on campuses like cleaning staff, bus drivers, and special education workers.

“They felt that she understood specifically what they were saying about what they needed, or what they viewed the schools needed to improve the conditions,” said Arias about the members’ support of Ortiz.

The SEIU also favors Ortiz due to the fact that she very visibly supported the SEIU 99 strike during March 2023. Thus far, Ortiz’s campaign has been largely funded and supported by SEIU 99. The union paid for digital ads, like posters and videos which have popped up on Hulu and YouTube, as well as mailers.

The money spent by SEIU on campaigns comes from the union’s general fund. 

Ortiz would be considered a front runner given how much has been spent in support of her campaign, as well as her surprising success during her run for the same seat in the 2019 special election, where she fell short of moving forward to the general election by 31 votes. 

However, since January 2024, a scandal involving serious allegations has surrounded the Ortiz campaign. A lawsuit, first reported by Los Cerritos Community News, alleges that the assault of a minor volunteering on a campaign for Ortiz and Efren Martinez happened due to Ortiz’s negligence. The minor was allegedly volunteering on the campaign at Ortiz’s behest. Martinez is currently a candidate for California Assembly District 57. 

The investigation into Ortiz’s involvement in the incident resulted in LAUSD placing Ortiz on administrative leave, according to the LA Times. She has since returned to her job.

CSEA local 500 originally backed both Ortiz and Fidencio Gallardo for the seat. The union recently rescinded their endorsement of Ortiz citing the lawsuit as the reason. 

This is the first time the CSEA union has ever retracted a candidate endorsement. However, SEIU 99 has stayed committed to Ortiz pending the results of the official investigation into Ortiz’s and Martinez’s alleged negligence of minors under their care. 

The SEIU at time of publication has spent $758,901.32 on informational materials in support of Ortiz.

Griego has been an LAUSD special education teacher for nearly 20 years. She also served as a board member for United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and led past strike efforts. Griego has more recently served as a community school coordinator at McAlister High School. Griego’s campaign is supported by UTLA which has put more than $700,000 into mailers and other campaign materials. Members have also canvassed and phone banked for her campaign.

Griego says that she comes from a background of “organizing and building power from the ground up,” and she intends to continue that if she is elected.

Griego also promises to hold the board accountable through demands for more funding for District 5. She committed to reducing class size, prioritizing community schools that serve marginalized students, and working with their input. She also committed to keeping LAUSD jobs from being contracted out to independent workers. Griego has promised to hold monthly meetings with community stakeholders to ensure she is aligned with the needs of the district.

Griego said, “We need to engage all of these stakeholders in order to get a full picture and make decisions that are holistic, and that address student’s holistic needs.”

Griego is enthused about the potential to grow “Community Schools,” which tailor every school site to the direct feedback and needs of the community in and around the school.

She said, “We want to grow them, because they really are beautiful spaces that, again, bring the whole community together. And most importantly, it gives voice and decision making power to the stakeholders, unlike in a traditional school where a lot of decisions are made from the top down.”

Griego and Ortiz are generally aligned on policy according to the information from their campaigns as well as what they have said in public forums. However, Griego is the only candidate who states outright support of the Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) on her website.

At time of publication, Griego has raised $61,884.96 in donations.

Griego has never served as a publicly elected official in any capacity. She is also the only candidate who is a current LAUSD parent.

LA Public Press did not receive a response from UTLA for comment on their Griego endorsement.

Outside of these two candidates, Fidencio Gallardo is also running for the seat and has raised $98,223.39.

Currently serving as Mayor of Bell in the southeast area of LAUSD District 5, neighboring Huntington Park, Gallardo has been a member of his City Council since 2015. Gallardo also ran for the LAUSD District 5 position during the special election in 2019. In this respect, Gallardo and Ortiz have the same amount of political experience. 

During the 2019 special election, Gallardo stepped down from the race and supported Goldberg, who ultimately won the District 5 seat. 

Gallardo is currently working under District 5 board member Goldberg as an innovation deputy. Before that, he worked as a teacher for nearly 30 years and as adjunct professor at Cal State LA for just over 20 years. Goldberg, who is retiring, has endorsed Gallardo to take her place. 

CSEA local 500 now only supports Gallardo as a candidate after pulling out support for Ortiz. He is also endorsed by the LA Times and other SELA local officials.

Gallardo makes many of the same promises that the others have mentioned during their campaigning. He says he will shrink class size, support marginalized youths like BSAP and  LGBTQ+ students and parents, and prioritize mental health. He also says he has a lot of hope for community schools and the support that the initiative has at the national level.

Critics of Gallardo have called him a career politician. The SEIU has spent $38,440.78 on campaign materials stating that. 

The candidate explained that he has no aspirations for higher public office saying, “I made a promise to myself that after I serve on the school board, I will reward myself with as many years as I can in the classroom as a classroom teacher. That’s where my heart is.”

He said if he doesn’t win this race, he isn’t sure he would run for a third time.

Amanda is a journalist born and raised in SELA, where you can find her playing tennis at a local park or taking her cat out for a walk.