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Charter school leader to challenge Garcetti in 2017

LOS ANGELES — Charter school founder Steve Barr announced June 27 that he will try to unseat Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2017.

Barr, a Silver Lake resident and founder of charter school nonprofit Green Dot Public Schools, issued a statement on his Facebook page saying he plans to “disrupt the political establishment and turn our city around.”

“We’re going to build a grassroots movement to rally around and transform all of L.A.’s schools, end the homeless and affordability crisis, and fight for a city where every family can thrive,” he wrote.

Barr, who filed fundraising paperwork with the City Ethics Commission, has not previously held public office, though he has dipped into the political arena in other ways.

He was a co-founder of the Rock the Vote youth civics engagement campaign in the 1990s, and helped push for passage of the so-called “Motor Voter” law, which allowed people to sign up to vote at DMV offices, according to his campaign website.

Barr has appeared to center his campaign on tackling education. He said in his 15 years running charter schools, he has seen students in Los Angeles’ “highest-need areas” graduating at greater rates and going on to college, so it is frustrating “to go down the street [at LAUSD schools] and see that’s not happening.”

Barr lamented there has been “little sense of urgency” among local elected officials, including Garcetti, around the issue of education, saying most politicians have opted for “staying in their lanes.”

Some have argued that unlike in Chicago and New York, the mayor in Los Angeles does not have direct control of the school district, which limits Garcetti from doing more. But Barr said that because past mayors like Antonio Villaraigosa have made education a priority, there are now programs like Partnership for Los Angeles and an expanded charter school systems in place that have improved student achievement.

The mayor is in a better position than most to rally Angelenos and lawmakers around the issue, according to Barr.

“It’s not out of the question — it takes leadership,” he said, adding that while there is a school board, its members are relatively unknown, but “Everybody knows who the mayor is.”

“You can’t be a great city if you have a quarter million kids going to sub-par schools,” he said. “It seems to me it would be driving me crazy if I were mayor and everyday I’m plugging the holes” of problems like crime and poverty that could be fixed by creating a better education system, he said.

Barr said part of the reason he is running is because he is tired of trying to get elected officials to feel “as passionately as I feel about” education, and “as passionately I feel people in this city feel about it,” so it occurred to him that “maybe I gotta shut up and run myself.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti
Mayor Eric Garcetti

Garcetti’s campaign manager Bill Carrick said the mayor has “done a lot of stuff for young people, a lot of stuff for students — meaningful things that will change young people’s lives and students’ lives.”

Carrick said Garcetti has been especially “innovative” in raising private funding to supplement the lack of public dollars for schools.

Carrick pointed to Garcetti’s initiative to raise private dollars to expand a summer youth jobs program from 5,000 to 15,000 jobs, with a goal of reaching 20,000 by another four years.

According to Carrick, Garcetti also helped two areas in the city obtain status as Promise Zones, an Obama Administration program that is expected to bring to South Los Angeles and other parts of the city more federal support and funding for “anti-poverty” programs around education, access to health foods and workforce development.

Garcetti has also embraced a program that would provide a free year of community college beginning next fall. When the mayor announced the partnership with the Los Angeles Community College District in his State of the City speech earlier this year, college district board member Scott Svonkin told City News Service that Garcetti was expected to help with a $3 million fundraising effort toward implementing the program.

The mayor also increased funding for the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program 20 percent to $26 million, and has expanded these gang prevention and intervention services citywide for the first time, Carrick said.

“These are all practical and doable things that the mayor can get done here in Los Angeles, and he’s doing that,” Carrick said, adding that “the mayor is obviously going to speak out on education issues whenever he thinks he can be constructive and make a difference.”

“The reality is, much of education policy is done in Sacramento,” and with the local school district, Carrick said.

Barr, who will be going up against an incumbent who has already amassed a campaign war chest amounting to about $2.2 million — nearly $400,000 of which has been spent as of December — is the second major challenger to declare his candidacy.

In January, longtime Democratic operative Mitchell Schwartz, a political strategist for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and a communications director in former President Bill Clinton’s administration, announced his bid for the mayor’s seat.

The 55-year-old Schwartz cited homelessness and crime as major concerns, as well as problems with aging infrastructure and what he characterized as unchecked real estate development in the city.