LAUSD Board Special Election Candidate Q&A: Jackie Goldberg

FILE - Jackie Goldberg speaks to a meeting of the East Area Progressive Democrats on Nov. 27, 2018. A former L.A. City Council and the California Assembly, Goldberg is running to reclaim the L.A. Unified School Board seat she held in the 1980s. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Voters in northeast and southeast Los Angeles will go to the polls on May 14 for a special election to fill an open seat on the L.A. Unified School Board.

The race in LAUSD's Board District 5 is taking place on the heels of a historic strike by the district's teachers union.

"The strike aroused the public," candidate Jackie Goldberg said. "They are now committed. They want something to happen. And I think being on the school board is the place to do it from."

A former member of the City Council and the California Assembly, Goldberg is a fixture in L.A. politics. Her career in elected life began in 1983, when she was elected to the first of two terms representing District 5. Now, she's hoping to win that seat again.

Goldberg is facing off against Heather Repenning, a former aide to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, in the May 14 special election. Both candidates spoke recently with KPCC/LAist.


The following is a transcript of KPCC/LAist's hour-long Q&A with Jackie Goldberg. Her answers and our questions have been edited or condensed for clarity and length, so directly quote from this story with caution. Listen to an audio version of this interview here.

JUMP TO A TOPIC BELOW:

RELATED: Q&A with Goldberg's opponent, Heather Repenning


I.) UTLA STRIKE

Kyle Stokes (KPCC/LAist): Do you think that the teacher strike impacted this race in any way?

Jackie Goldberg: I do. It raised the level of consciousness of an awful lot of people in Southern California, about the conditions in the public schools. See, I think people remember — particularly people in their 40s and 50s and 60s — they remember that things were better. And they still think that's how it is.

I remember talking to people when we were standing out on the sidewalk, and they'd say, "Why are you striking?" I'd say, "Well, there's this school here that I'm standing in front of with the teachers. There's a nurse one day a week." And they go,"Really, how did that happen?"

People didn't realize that since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, with continuous underfunding of L.A. and all California public schools, conditions have just gotten worse and worse. We didn't used to worry about whether we had class sizes that were over about 30, 31 or 32.

Q: Did you consciously make what you learned on the picket lines in January part of your campaign strategy ahead of the primary in March?

Yes. The big motivation for my running is to try to protect public education and to try to get it funded once again.

There were some really fine candidates in this race besides me. They're terrific people, a whole lot of them. But none of them have the connections in Sacramento, the city, and the county. I think that's an advantage, and trying to take the momentum that the teacher strike created on behalf of public education, and go back up to Sacramento and say, "OK, we gave Democrats a two-thirds majority now." Now, we expect you to find out where the wealth is, and tax it and invest in our children.

That money needs to go to reduce class sizes, they're too big. They're particularly too big if the kids are from low-income areas, because they need more attention to catch up. We need more assistant principals. My God, we need teaching assistants in every classroom, probably. We need special ed teachers and special ed teaching assistants. We need counselors. If we don't get the money from Sacramento, we won't be able to raise it anymore locally because of Prop. 13.

Q: LAUSD did put a parcel tax on the June ballot.

Yes, that'll help a little, and I'm favor of that — although I wanted to do it last year to try to prevent the strike.

II.) LAUSD'S FINANCES

Q: During that teachers strike, we all got used to this debate over how much money LAUSD has to spend — and what it means to have a $2 billion reserve. United Teachers Los Angeles claimed that was $2 billion that district officials were hoarding and refusing to spend. LAUSD officials said that was misleading, that they had already committed to spend basically all of this money in order to avoid a deficit —

— actually, that wasn't true. There's a difference between a reserve and a surplus. OK, a reserve is exactly what they said, a reserve is money that has been pretty much allocated, but you didn't spend it during the year you allocated it. So you're reserving it to pay those bills as they come in.

A surplus is money that's unallocated, and they had a $2 billion surplus, which they called a reserve. That kind of ticked me off a little bit — because I was there, I know the difference.

Q: It seemed to me, though, that they had something like a $2 billion "ending balance" —

That's totally unallocated.

Q: The district wouldn't agree with that. They forecast they need to spend that money in order to balance their budget in each of the next three years.

But the third year never comes! They've been saying this for 30 years that I'm personally aware of. They always predict that the third year is a catastrophe. And the third year is only a catastrophe under one set of circumstances: a statewide recession. Now, if we have a big statewide recession again, then they may be right.

My view is you don't spend all of the $2 billion. You put $1 billion away in case there is another recession. But you spend a billion right now because you can't tell children, 'Oh, well, we're afraid. So you don't get smaller classes.'

Q: Let me come back to the underlying assumption that there's $1 billion to spend. The L.A. County Office of Education (LACOE) says they're willing to appoint a "fiscal advisor" — someone who can veto school board decisions to force hard choices about the budget — if the district doesn't get its budget in line. They specifically cited that the district won't have enough money in reserve in the third year of its current budget. Is LACOE wrong?

Yes — because they always assume the worst-case scenario. And in the worst-case scenario is when they're correct. The problem is when you tell children to be put on hold while we worry if they're, we're going to have the worst-case scenario.

If the worst-case scenario comes, what do you have to do — you have to cut. In the meantime, we've got the advantages of spending the money on them.

Elected officials don't want to make cuts because it's unpopular. So rather than risk making cuts, they're willing to hold back money from the kids right now. I think that's wrong. It's a philosophical difference of opinion.

Q: Back in May, you spoke at an LAUSD board meeting. You said, "I'm really saddened that the Board of Education is about to embark on a period of history in which this district very well may end up in bankruptcy. Look at what's happening to Inglewood."

That has nothing to do with LACOE. That had to do with the systematic financial undermining of the district by charter school attendance.

Inglewood Unified has almost 60 percent of its kids in charter schools. That's why they're in state receivership.

When a kid leaves a district-run school for a charter school, the fixed costs of the school they're leaving don't change. When that child leaves for a charter, there's less money for LAUSD to pay the fixed costs.

Q: Well, hold that thought — we'll come back to charter schools and school choice. But on LAUSD's finances, you don't feel that the district's finances are currently in trouble — but there are risks, and the risk comes from charter schools?

Well, there are also risks around health care costs. If the president is able to further gut Obamacare by introducing cheaper policies that cover less, that means people who remain in the insurance system will be paying higher amounts of money, which includes district employees. So there are threats, which is why I said of the $2 billion reserve, put $1 billion away.

But nothing is going to fix any of the real problems of public education without going back to where we were, where we truly were in the top five to seven every year in per pupil expenditures.

III.) CHARTER SCHOOLS & SCHOOL CHOICE

Q: Public school choice in LAUSD is about more than just charter schools. The district offers its own menu of choices: magnet schools, dual-language programs, or other options focused on the arts, STEM, or career education. Is this spread of public school choice a good thing, or a bad thing?

I've never been against choice.

I'll say this — school choice used to mean creating a school that you couldn't get any other way. Anytime charter schools are doing something that we aren't able to do, or we haven't chosen to do, I think it's a good idea. In other words, there's a charter school that teaches Nahuatl, the Aztec language. From my point of view, I would support that charter school because it's a choice you can't get anywhere else in the district.

But I would say at least half of them are virtually no different than L.A. Unified schools. I don't understand why we need them. I really don't. They're not doing anything exciting. They're not doing anything different.

I taught teachers, preparing them to teach in inner-city schools for UCLA for eight years after I left the California Assembly. My interns were placed in charter schools, so I had a look at about 40 charter schools on a regular weekly basis. About one-third of them were significantly different — and, I thought, better. And there were about a half a dozen of those 40 I wouldn't leave a kid in overnight.

Charter school advocates have spent a fair amount of money, in my opinion, lying to the public, that if you go to the charter school, your kids' scores are going to go up, they're going to do much better. Well, L.A. Unified magnet schools as a group beat charter schools as a group every year on test scores. So if you're taking scores, I still don't see the need.

Schools of choice should offer something different. That's what our magnet schools try to sell. If charter schools are providing a real choice, I have no problem with them whatsoever.

Q: The bind that you get into as a board member is that you have limited authority to regulate charter schools.

We have no authority, practically. I keep telling parents in southeast L.A. who wonder if I'm going to close their kids' schools if I win: "Not only do I not want to, I couldn't if I wanted to — that's not how the system works."

Q: The issue though, is that people do have the sense that the school board could improve how charter schools are regulated. What steps do you think the district could take?

Not much without Sacramento, to be honest with you. I think that districts should be the only entity authorizing charter schools in their district boundaries. I don't think that the State Board of Education should charter any schools. I don't think it's their decision, frankly, it should be a local decision.

I also think there should be something called an "education impact report," filled out by the charter applicant, and by the schools in the neighborhoods that the charter would impact.

If you have one charter school near Crenshaw High School, I would say, "Probably not a problem." But now there are eight charter schools. So Crenshaw High School has 850 kids, and all of the charter schools surrounding it are also under-enrolled. This is not a good system. You need to be able to tell a charter school, "We're going to charter you. But you can all surround one school and empty it. We're going to tell you where you can go. You don't want to go there? Then go somewhere else."

These under-enrolled schools on either side are not helping either side. Some of the charter school people I'm talking to agree with me on that. There are charter school people who want a moratorium because they don't feel like they can continue if they keep losing enrollment, because they're fighting each other over, as well as the district schools.

Q: Do you support a charter school moratorium?

I support a temporary moratorium while we try to deal with some of the legislative changes — but it's not going to happen. The state's charter school law has not been reviewed in the 26 years it's been on the books, and it's time. But I don't think it's going to happen because there's too much money against it from charter school advocates.

Q: Different topic — magnets were set up as a desegregation program.

And mostly they still are.

Q: Well, I think thinking people can disagree about whether they're still a desegregation program.

Most of them are — remember that there's probably not 20 percent of the district left of what we used to call "other whites."

Many of the magnets are, in my opinion, integrated, because they have African American, Latino, Asian and white kids in them. I don't think desegregating the schools includes only white kids. It's partially white kids, but not only white kids.

Now, some magnet schools are not able to do that at all, because there are no white families willing to send their kids there. So those are not really doing any desegregation, unless it is encouraging a multiethnic group of kids of color, in which case, I still think it's serving a desegregated function.

You don't want an African American school here and a Latino school there. You want kids growing up and going to school and knowing each other, and I do think I magnets, more or less, depending on where they're geographically located, are doing that.


Listen to an audio version of this interview here.

JUMP TO A TOPIC:

RELATED: Q&A with Goldberg's opponent, Heather Repenning


IV.) BD5 DEMOGRAPHICS

Q: Very early in the race, a bunch of Latino candidates called me to a restaurant in Highland Park to say, "We're worried the major endorsements in this race are all going to white candidates. This stinks."

They were right.

I wanted to be appointed so this would not happen. I asked the school board to appoint me in July of last year. I told them, "I know the district. I represented 80 percent of the people in the district. If you appoint me, I will not run in 2020."

And that's because special elections always favor white people. Always. That's why I didn't want one. And I told them that. I went to each board member and I told them that. I said, "If you don't do this, you're going to have Latino candidates that are of high quality who can't get elected, and that's wrong."

And three charter-backed school board members and [District 7 board member Richard] Vladovic said, "No, we're not gonna do that."

"OK," I said,"then I'm running and all bets are off." Now I'm not saying I'm not running in 2020.

Q: Is Board District 5 a "Latino seat"?

Yes! Yes. Absolutely. It should be. It's the hardest part of this for me. But I really didn't feel like any of the other candidates had a chance — many of them really terrific candidates — had a chance of winning against a charter person. And I didn't want the seat to go to charter people again.

Q: Why do you think these other candidates didn't have a chance?

Name recognition and a short race. If they had a full race, I probably wouldn't have run, because they would have had time to develop that name recognition. But in a 60-day special election? Not gonna happen.

Q: This issue isn't only about just race. For at least a decade, Board District 5's representative has come from the northern half of the district. The board representative hasn't hailed from the Southeast Cities — which are even more predominantly Latino — for at least a decade. How do you make links to that community, both in the racial and geographic sense?

I'm already doing that. I've now been endorsed by the mayor of Maywood. I've now been endorsed by the vice mayor of Cudahy. I'm working with people on the city council, although I'm not asking for their endorsement at this point. But I'm working with people on the city council in both Huntington Park and South Gate.

You know, I've lived in the same house for 40 years — I haven't moved into the district, OK. I've always been in the district.

I always hire a multiethnic, multilingual staff, and I will do so again. Hopefully, they will run. I've got five or six people who have already asked for my help to figure out how to get ready to make a major run.

I'm not a king- or queen-maker. I don't pick a person and say,"You're it." Several of them are from the southeast. Not all of them ones from the northeast, but they're all Latino — Latinx is the new term. They're all Latinx. And I intend to help them in any way that I can.

V.) SUPERINTENDENT BEUTNER'S PERFORMANCE

Q: The most consequential decision a school board member can make is to hire or fire a superintendent. Do you think Austin Buetner is doing a good job in that role?

I don't, but I don't think he's doing a terrible job either.

His biggest problem is, is that his private sector background makes him do things in private that I think he should do in public. He wants to do some reorganization. OK, fine. He should have started — when he first got there — by going out to every community and saying, "I think it's time for us to look at how we structure L.A. Unified. What I want to know is from you, what would you change?" And he should listen to all of that. And then he should go back, with his staff and his consultants.

Q: He would say that he did. There were listening sessions.

Bull. You couldn't even find them. You really couldn't find them. I'm on every mailing list in the district, and I couldn't find them. I'm talking about months of going out, not one time in each part of the district and hoping that the 25 people who showed up you can say represented everybody in that area.

I'm talking about multiple iterations of community meetings: "Tell me your ideas. What do we need to change?" Then, go back, make some plans — and then go out a second time and say, "Give me a critique of that." Now you have support. Right now, you can't find hardly anybody who thinks that they want to support him, because they, first of all, don't know what it is.

[Editor's note: After KPCC/LAist conducted this interview with Goldberg, Beutner gave interviews saying his plans to change how LAUSD schools relate to the district's central and regional bureaucracy is not nearly as ambitious as early leaked documents suggest.]

Q: How do you think that he handled the strike?

Poorly. Honest-to-God, I didn't think there needed to be a strike. All of the things they agreed to, they could have agreed to before the strike.

I think they decided that they could beat the teachers union. I think they completely underestimated the solidarity of the teachers — and completely underestimated the solidarity of the community with the teachers. I underestimated that too. I thought there would be some, but I had no idea it would be massive.

He figured they could get on the radio and talk about, "These are poor kids, they're going to lose their education! This strike is anti-children, anti-poor kids!" Beutner was just wrong.

Q: Can you work with Beutner?

Of course, I can work with anybody. I don't come in with an opposition to him. I'm not trying to get rid of him.

I have met with every superintendent since my time on the board — including Beutner when he first came in — because I feel obligated to go and say to them, "Here are some things I learned. I want you not to have to wait to learn them." He had given me a 20-minute interview, but we spent an hour together. There are things we agree on. And there are things we don't agree on.

VI.) SCHOOL BOARD DYNAMICS

Q: In May, you spoke at a school board meeting to speak against the decision to hire Beutner as superintendent. But you didn't stop there, sharply criticizing board members more generally. You told board members they had "sold their souls to the devil" — and you weren't just talking about the scandal-plagued Ref Rodriguez. If elected, how are you going to work with other board members?

I was really tied up in knots that day.

I'm planning to meet with Kelly Gonez. I have a good relationship with two of the board members already [Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna], who have endorsed me. Richard Vladovic and I have worked together on bunches of stuff for years — that's five members of the seven-member board.

Even the two with whom I have most basic disagreements about charter schools [Nick Melvoin and Mónica García], I think that there are areas we can work on. I've always worked on boards and on in Sacramento with people who don't agree with me.

Q: It's interesting that you say this because you also can appear, in public, like a real bomb-thrower.

I'm a bomb-thrower when I get really ticked off — and so are some of them. I mean, people have emotions, and I get emotional about some things. And I was very emotional about Ref Rodriguez voting on the decision to hire Beutner. He had no business doing that, or voting on the budget. It was nothing personal — in fact, of all of the board members, I met with him more times than anybody, because he was my board representative.

Q: Four months after this sharp criticism of Beutner and the board, board members passed you over for a temporary appointment to the Board District 5 seat. Was that a motivator for you to run?

Yes. It wasn't the only motivator.

Q: A more negative way of asking the question is, "Are you just running out of a sense of pique?"

No, no, that's too much trouble to do, run out of pique. Much too much trouble. You have to raise too much money, you have to go to too many meetings, you have to leave your life as you knew it completely.

I just believe deeply that if you want a democracy, you have to have quality public education. And that's really the only reason I'm running.

Q: And just to clear the record — because we had this mixed up in an earlier story we wrote about the race — if elected, you would still run in 2020?

What I had said gets misquoted because I did say publicly at the school board in August, "Appoint me, and I won't run in 2020." People thought I was making a blanket commitment. But if I'm going to this much trouble to run, I'm going to stay long enough to get something done.