It’s common wisdom that when labor and business clash in an election, the union-backed candidates usually will find themselves outspent and comparatively underfunded.
But in some Jefferson Parish School Board races, a massive influx of cash from the American Federation of Teachers has turned the common wisdom on its head.
The union, which is the national organization overseeing the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, has plowed about $446,000 into a new political action committee called the AFT Committee for School Board Accountability in Jefferson Parish. That money — which represents $200,000 more than the total raised this year by all 19 candidates running for seats on the board — is going toward efforts to elect five union-backed candidates.
“We’re proud of the role we’ve played in helping our kids in school, and we want to continue that role in a more collaborative environment,” AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass said. “We are investing a fair amount in these School Board races because there’s a fundamental difference of opinion about what makes a good education and what kids need. The public has a right to know who stands for what.”
The donations come as the Jefferson Federation of Teachers is running candidates against a slate of members elected in 2010 with the backing of the parish’s business community. The union and the board have been at odds since that election.
This year, the board’s decision not to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the union has been a major point of disagreement in the campaign, and the election could determine whether that contract will be reinstated.
The massive influx of money has the potential to shake up the School Board races, in which candidates traditionally have spent in the range of $30,000 each. By contrast, the money being spent by the AFT amounts to about $90,000 for each of the candidates it is backing: Cedric Floyd, Glenn Mayeaux, Raymond St. Pierre, Ricky Johnson and Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch. Floyd and St. Pierre are current board members.
“That’s a staggering amount of money,” said Tony Ligi, executive director of the Jefferson Business Council and one of the leaders of the effort to keep the business-backed majority in control of the board. The business community is backing Rickeem Jackson, Melinda Bourgeois, Ray Griffin, Sharlayne Jackson Prevost and current board member Larry Dale in those races.
So far, the AFT’s local committee has reported spending almost $117,000 on paid canvassers and $48,000 on online advertising, both of which were provided by firms based in Iowa. It also has sent out mailers promoting its candidates, though those have not yet shown up in the campaign finance reports.
The thrust of the campaign is twofold. The fliers blast the business-backed board members for layoffs and furloughs that the courts ruled were improper after lawsuits brought by the teachers union; they accuse the board of souring the relationship between teachers and the administration and wasting taxpayer money defending against those suits. The campaign also attacks the board for spending money on consultants and for wasting money on high salaries for administrators.
“Obviously, there’s been significant concern in Jefferson Parish on the part of teachers, who I think to a one would like to spend their time doing teaching plans and focusing on kids rather than fighting lawsuits against the School Board,” said Sterling Clifford, who is in charge of the union’s Jefferson Parish political committee. A former spokesman for a variety of Democrats including California Gov. Jerry Brown, Clifford now lives in Gretna.
AFT officials said they are increasingly getting involved in school board races in response to fundraising and campaigning by opposing groups.
AFT Deputy Political Director Jennifer Rodriguez specifically cited fundraisers held by Gov. Bobby Jindal in past years to benefit members of the current School Board majority. She also mentioned the involvement of other deep-pocketed donors, such as businessman Lane Grigsby in Baton Rouge, in helping to fund candidates for school boards and the state’s education board.
She said JFT members in Jefferson had brought issues to the national union’s attention, such as the lawsuits and general friction between the local board and the union.
“We’re not trying to hide behind anything,” Rodriguez said. “Our name is on this. We own this because we own the values that we’re standing up for.”
Both AFT Solidarity — the union’s national political action committee, which provided the money for the local races — and the Jefferson Parish committee are independent organizations and not directly tied to the candidates’ campaigns. That means they are not bound by the campaign finance laws that restrict donations to candidates.
Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Vice President Brigitte Nieland, who is in charge of education issues for that organization, said it was ironic that the unions would pour so much money into local races when there has been criticism of her organization and others for funding candidates responsible for many of the recent changes to the state’s education system. LABI does operate several PACs, which have been involved in statewide races, but those groups do not donate to local races such as school boards, Neiland said.
“Granted, the playing field’s not level, but this is legal,” Neiland said. “What’s really going to have to happen is those (business-backed) candidates are going to have to be out there and say, ‘There’s a lot of money pouring in, but everyone gets one vote,’ and they’ll have to get their message out.”
Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said he had not known the specifics of AFT’s involvement until asked about it Friday. But he said the money is necessary to counterbalance opponents who are backed by business interests that can allow candidates to advertise for free on their properties or potentially make the case for their preferred candidate to their employees.
“I’m damn glad they’re putting the money in to try to help the JFT take back those races. May those dollars be used to that end,” Monaghan said.
No equivalent organization has emerged to back the business-supported candidates in the race, though Stand for Children, an education advocacy group, has donated to some of their campaigns. Those candidates have benefited from donations by individual members of the business community, and they have larger individual war chests than their union opponents.
At the same time, union-backed candidates have benefited from funding from both the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
It’s not likely the business groups will seek to directly counter the AFT’s influx of funds.
“At this point, all the candidates that I support are all realistically funded to get their message out, their positive message out,” Ligi said. “Anything else at this point is strictly overkill.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.