LOS ANGELES – John Deasy’s name won’t appear on any ballots in next week’s L.A. school board elections, but it’s widely understood that the candidates who win three open board seats may determine the superintendent’s future with the district.

Since Deasy took over as head of the Los Angeles Unified School District in April 2011, he has sparred with United Teachers Los Angeles (the local teachers union) over a variety of issues, most notably the linking of teacher evaluations to student learning. When Deasy recently announced that student academic growth will comprise 30 percent of a teacher’s job review, the union howled in protest.

UTLA leaders also dislike Deasy’s new requirement that teachers must be recommended for tenure by their school principal – in writing. Written recommendations create a paper trail, which will ultimately make it easier for the district to deny tenure to undeserving teachers.

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That’s a stark contrast to the old policy, which essentially granted tenure automatically. As a result, 98 percent of eligible teachers were given lifetime job protections before Deasy became superintendent. Under Deasy’s reform policy, less than 50 percent of new teachers are being recommended for tenure, reports Los Angeles Magazine.

The UTLA has also clashed with Deasy over his decision to replace the entire staff at L.A.’s Miramonte Elementary School in the wake of last year’s sex abuse scandal. The staff was relocated to a high school. It was Deasy’s way of giving Miramonte families and teachers a fresh start after the horrific event, but one former UTLA president said the superintendent’s treatment of innocent teachers was “criminal.”

“Those people are tarred forever, and it’s on Deasy’s head,” former UTLA President John Perez told the Los Angeles Times.

For those reasons and more, the UTLA and other labor unions – namely SEIU Local 99 and the County Federation of Labor – are spending money and pledging “boots on the ground” to elect board members who will oppose Deasy’s reform agenda and consider removing him from office.

The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association are all staying on the sidelines for the L.A. school board contests, quite possibly because their coffers are “tapped out” after last November’s hotly contested state and national elections, according to Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

‘The stakes have never been this high’

Union sympathizers currently hold a 4-3 advantage on the Los Angeles school board, with three seats up for grabs next week.

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“For now, the LAUSD board has three dedicated reformers,” a Daily News editorial states. “That could change with this election. If the balance of power shifts, it is very likely the board will fire Superintendent John Deasy and start dismantling some of the positive changes he has brought to the district.”

However, a fourth reformer on the seven-member board “will permanently tip the scales 4 to 3 in favor of … more charter expansion and data-based teacher evaluations,” reports South California Public Radio. That would be good news for Deasy.

A similar situation occurred in Washington D.C. in 2010 when the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, spent about $1 million to elect a new mayor who would fire D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Like Deasy, Rhee pursued a reform agenda with little regard to the feelings of the local teachers union.

While the teacher unions won the D.C. fight, education reform activists from across the nation are rallying to Deasy’s side in the L.A. elections. They’re doing so with campaign contributions to three school board candidates – Kate Anderson, Antonio Sanchez, and incumbent Monica Garcia – who have pledged to support the superintendent and his reform agenda.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave $1 million to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform, which will be spent on behalf of the three school board candidates “who favor parental choice, charter growth and data-based teacher evaluations,” reports the Daily News.

“Other high-profile donors” – including billionaires Eli Broad and Jerry Perenchio, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and “Everybody Loves Raymond” actress Monica Horan – have “swelled the coffers of the reform coalition to more than $2.5 million,” the news site notes.

There’s so much riding on the March 5 school board election that “the campaign for three board seats could set records for spending, with expenditures likely to surpass $5 million,” reports PR Newswire.

“This is not the first time that reformers and the unions have gone head to head, but the stakes have never been this high,” Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, told the Daily News.

“This fight isn’t about John Deasy the person, but what he represents – an aggressive approach to reform that raises a lot of very high passions on both sides of the debate.”

A crowded field

The most contentious school board race is between UTLA-endorsed incumbent Steve Zimmer and challenger Kate Anderson.

Zimmer, a former Teach for America instructor, was first elected to the board in 2009 with the support of the education reform movement.

But as one commentator put it, Zimmer “seemingly awoke one morning and became a reliable proponent of positions espoused by organized labor leaders, a staunch opponent of those held by the people who made his 2009 candidacy possible, and a critic of views he himself once espoused.”

Zimmer’s support of Deasy has been equally confusing. He was the only board member who didn’t vote in favor of Deasy’s hiring in 2011, but he voted to extend the superintendent’s contract last October.

He doesn’t like Deasy’s efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student learning (through a process known as Academic Growth Over Time), but has pledged to support the superintendent during a potential second term.

Zimmer is running as an independent-minded swing vote, but the UTLA is heavily backing him, which raises some questions about his true agenda.

But one thing Zimmer and the union clearly agree on is their opposition to expanding the number of charter schools within the district.

Education reformers are lining up behind Anderson, a mother of two LAUSD students and former corporate lawyer, who has pledged to “absolutely” vote to retain Deasy as L.A.’s school leader.

The other big race involves current LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia, who is being challenged by four candidates, three of whom are supported by the UTLA.

In an interesting twist, Antonio Sanchez is supported by both the UTLA and many reformers for the open seat in District 6. Sanchez has an ally in Mayor Villaraigosa, for whom he used to work, and the local labor unions. LASchoolReport.com hails Sanchez as a “consensus candidate” who plays the issues “down the middle.” Sanchez faces two challengers in that race.

Given the crowded field in two of the three races, there’s a chance nobody will emerge with more than 50 percent of the vote. If that happens, the top two vote getters in each district will meet in a May 21 run-off election. That would mean Deasy’s future with the nation’s second-largest school district won’t be known for another two months.

As a Daily News editorial put it: “The future of Los Angeles’ public-education reform is at stake on March 5. That’s not hyperbole; that’s the truth about what could happen next election day.”