LA School Board Election 2020 Candidate Q&A: Marilyn Koziatek

Marilyn Koziatek is challenging incumbent Scott Schmerelson in LAUSD Board District 3, representing the West San Fernando Valley. (Courtesy of Mawanda Samuel/Koziatek campaign)

Marilyn Koziatek is the 39-year-old head of the tutoring and enrichment department at Granada Hills Charter High School. She's also a parent; her sons, in second and fourth grade, attend a Los Angeles Unified school in Chatsworth.

In the Nov. 3 election, Koziatek hopes to unseat an incumbent to win the LAUSD Board District 3 seat, which represents the west San Fernando Valley.

Both Koziatek and her opponent, Scott Schmerelson, recently sat for interviews with KPCC/LAist.


SUMMARY OF KOZIATEK'S ANSWERS

Click on each section heading to jump to Koziatek's full response.

  • On Supt. Austin Beutner: The superintendent has done a fair job handling the COVID-19 pandemic, Koziatek said. She praised the creative partnerships he entered to help vulnerable families. She also indicated his emergency pandemic spending powers can't last forever.
  • On distance learning: Koziatek said that requiring teachers to provide more hours of live instruction means little if they're unable to deliver high-quality lessons.
  • On reopening campuses: While epidemiologists and public health experts should drive any decision to reopen campuses, Koziatek said LAUSD needs to first consult parents and stakeholders. She said many parents are wary of sending their children back.
  • On school police: Koziatek said determining the role of the L.A. School Police Department will require nuanced discussion. She feels the nation's gun laws make the threat of on-campus violence real. She also said solving the root causes of racial injustice requires attention to issues beyond the role of school police. When pressed, Koziatek declined to say whether she would have supported the board's move this summer to cut the LASPD budget by 35%.
  • On LAUSD's funding formula: Koziatek supports an LAUSD formula redistributing dollars to the neediest schools. She said funds for school programs are scarce because of administrative waste. She supports Proposition 15.
  • On charter schools: Koziatek bemoaned how charter school politics have come to dominate LAUSD board debates, saying the issue distracts attention from other issues.

ALSO: Read a Q&A with Koziatek's opponent in the District 3 race, Scott Schmerelson

For more on this and other races on your ballot in Southern California, check out the Voter Game Plan from KPCC and LAist.


What follows is a transcript of an interview with Koziatek, edited for length and clarity.

SUPERINTENDENT JOB PERFORMANCE

KYLE STOKES, KPCC/LAist: The most important decision a school board member makes is to hire or fire a superintendent. How well do you think Austin Beutner is doing in that job currently?

I think he's doing a fair job during this crisis.

We have this moment of this pandemic where I think that he rose to the challenge in providing some of the social support that is important for our district, such as food services. He stepped in and allowed the district, in partnership with the Red Cross, to be able to continue those services for our most vulnerable families. That effort was admirable because of the scale.

He did some creative things right in the beginning of the pandemic, like partnering with our public broadcasting stations to do standards-based shows and curriculum for students. I'm all about community partnerships.

LAist: On March 10, the board unanimously voted to delegate emergency powers to Superintendent Beutner. This gave him broad authority to enter fast-track, no-bid contracts to address LAUSD's coronavirus response — and to do so without school board approval. We're going on seven months under this state of emergency. Is it time for the board to end these extraordinary powers?

That's a good question. Like I said, he's stewarding us through this pandemic. The board is still meeting. There still has to be some dialogue, but the board is the entity that holds the superintendent accountable to the constituency — to the students and parents.

I think that that is an important function that can't be suspended forever. But it's hard to say when that should expire. We have to constantly be asking the question: 'Are we serving our children well during this time?' The answer in this case is, 'Sometimes yes, sometimes no.'

We don't know what's going to be happening tomorrow, or in January — 2020 has taught us that. I would want to see what is happening in January before I can really answer that question.


DISTANCE LEARNING

LAist: Going into this year, LAUSD teachers in most grades agreed, through their union, to provide at least 90 minutes of live lessons per day. On most days, United Teachers Los Angeles agreed their members will provide somewhere between 110 and 170 minutes of "synchronous instruction" — again, depending on the grade. Is that the proper balance between live and not-live virtual instruction?

I'm glad you asked me this one, because, if elected, I would be the only* board member with children in LAUSD. I would be the only board member that has actually gone through distance learning. So I'm auditing the district every night with my kids, every day. We're side by side with them, going through the curriculum.

(*Editor's Note: a candidate running for a different LAUSD board seat, Patricia Castellanos, also has a child enrolled in a district school. She and Koziatek are the only current LAUSD parents running.)

In March, there was so much uncertainty. I think the first side-letter agreement [with UTLA] was inadequate to meet the needs of our students.

As for this fall semester's agreement — I'm hesitant to always say things of one size fits all or is going to work for all students, I think this is part of the thing with distance learning is that we have to be talking about the quality of that synchronous and asynchronous learning. I know firsthand from my son's LAUSD school teachers: they're giving my child a high-quality distance learning experience. That's encouraging to me as a mom — but that's not the case for the entire district.

Even if we have endless hours of live instruction, but the quality isn't up to standards, then we're still failing.

LAist: Assessing the quality of synchronous instruction is so tricky — but some would argue the best proxy for "quality" that we have is, "How many hours of live instruction is a student getting?" Some have argued the most straightforward way to do this by looking at the number of synchronous versus asynchronous hours. How should we judge the quality of instruction?

As a mom, I would want a more robust outlook. It's about communication with our families, to be honest with you. We should be talking with parents, students, teachers or principals consistently, asking questions like, 'Were you able to connect to the Internet today?' That's a basic question — and still a lot of kids have to say no to it. 'Are you able to connect with your classroom?' And then, 'Do you have questions about the material?'

LAist: As a parent, how would you describe your kids' experience with distance learning? Has there been a difference between the experience this fall versus in the spring?

There's a difference. In the spring, we were all in shock. For my kids, the transition to distance learning was pretty seamless. But by the fall, teachers had a very structured understanding of the way that curriculum was going to be delivered in distance learning — versus in the spring, when it was just really trying to fit what was already planned for the year into a remote model.

That's the power of planning, good professional development and sound instructional practices.

It is a lot of work. My LAUSD kids, and all kids, they're under a lot of pressure right now. This is a very difficult season for our kids — and, by extension, our parents. That was the case in the spring, and that has been consistent throughout. Our families are in a very tough, tough situation.

LAist: How has the experience been personally for you?

I work full time — and at Granada, we are required to physically go into school, even though our students are not there. So I had to put my sons in daycare, and I had to find a daycare that supported their distance learning. I have to say the level of anxiety that we all have about being out in during a pandemic. There's nothing easy about this.

That's why my candidacy is so important. I'm a stakeholder, and this has hit me like a ton of bricks. I have been a part of this pandemic from every angle — as a mom, as a citizen, as a school employee. It takes an enormous amount of strength and fortitude to get through it. So, you know, I think it's time that we get some of that skin-in-the-game perspective on the school board.


Jump to Koziatek's answers on another issue:

Supt. Beutner | Distance learning | Funding | School police | Charter schools


REOPENING CAMPUSES

LAist: L.A. County has seemingly ruled out hybrid learning reopenings until at least November. But dozens of L.A. County schools are inviting as much of 10% of their population back for limited, small-group instruction — but Superintendent Beutner is not pursuing that right now, favoring one-on-one, by-appointment tutoring sessions for now. Is that appropriate? Or should LAUSD be pursuing small group instruction?

I am working on-campus in a school environment right now — and we have employees who have reported having positive COVID-19 tests. And it is terrifying. It is scary. That is a source of anxiety for me as someone who works at a school — or for anyone who has to report to a workplace right now as an essential worker.

My husband also has to go into work; we are considered essential workers — so where do we put our children that's safe, that allows them to continue to learn? There's a daycare crisis that our working families are living under — and there are no good options.

So when it comes to reopening plans, we need to be consulting with experts — scientists and epidemiologists — on how we're going to reopen in clear and defined phases. We know there are going to be no dates attached because we don't know when the pandemic ends.

But as an LAUSD mom trying to get through this distance learning, I want to at least have opportunities for local stakeholders to weigh in on this process and talk about the needs of each individual community — that will be the best way to approach a reopening plan.

LAist: But does it matter how stakeholders feel? You'll inevitably have people who are afraid to go back because of the virus, and people who worry about academic declines from staying in distance learning mode for too long. Why should their feedback change our response?

I have confidence that the district is going to make a scientifically sound plan. I've seen the contact tracing — what little they've shared — and that's encouraging.

There are children who are being left very, very far behind. Our most vulnerable children — I mean, there already was a gap, but now it's going to be a chasm as far as learning loss.

But I think it does matter what the local stakeholders say — if nothing else, even to know the numbers of kids to expect to return. When I talk to parents, some parents have told me they're not going to send their children back this school year at all — and they have good support at home. Other parents are desperate to send their kids back.

LAist: Long Beach Unified School District officials recently announced that their schools would remain in distance learning-only mode through January. Should LAUSD make a similar move?

Nailing down dates is probably going to be the most challenging part of this, because we don't know how this disease is going to continue to unfold. That will consistently be an uncertainty.

What we can do in the meantime is have these conversations and have the experts continuously be updating us. This communication loop — if you can't tell — is important to me.

I have talked to so many parents and even teachers saying, 'We want our voices heard in this process.'

Marilyn Koziatek (center) speaks during a candidate forum as alongside LAUSD Board District 3 incumbent Scott Schmerelson (right) and opponent Elizabeth Badger (left) during the March 2020 primary race. (Courtesy of the Koziatek campaign)

SCHOOL FUNDING

LAist: California already gives extra money to schools serving higher concentrations of high-need students. In recent years, board members have expanded the definition of high-need students to redistribute even more of that money to the very highest-need schools. I'm referring to the district's Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) 2.0, which adds statistics on past academic performance, rates of asthma cases and school climate to help determine a school's level of 'need.' Do you support this?

Yes. We have seen for decades that LAUSD leaves our most vulnerable children behind. We have seen it in our accountability reports. We have seen it in our graduation rates, our college-going rates, our persistence rates. This is the role of our public education system: to be able to serve all children well. I think it's massively important that we are ensuring that our highest-need communities get the resources that they deserve.

LAist: The pushback you sometimes hear about SENI 2.0 is that there are very few 'low-need' schools in LAUSD. In that sense, is it possible to become too progressive in your funding system — to redistribute too much of that money to high-need schools when there aren't really that many low-need schools from which to take funds? And I'd observe: a lot of the money is probably taken out of Board District 3 in the West Valley.

This is one of the reasons why I'm running is because — we're fighting over a certain amount of dollars.

But there is fraud, waste and abuse within the LAUSD budget. So where is that excess money and why is it not inside our classrooms across the entire district?

As a mom with children in my neighborhood public school, I'm always wondering, why is it that my teachers cannot get the resources that they need? Why is it that my principal is always saying, 'We can't fund our arts program! We can't fund our robotics program!' In our high-needs areas, they don't have the resources for counselors and social workers — all of the things that we need for students to thrive and do well.

But the one thing that we do know is that our behemoth district has a top-heavy bureaucracy and there is fraud, waste and abuse rampant within. So the LAUSD board, we have to be laser-focused on making sure every single dollar gets put into the classroom. And we have to be able to not compromise on holding the district bureaucracy accountable for giving the resources to the students.

LAist: What would you say constitutes fraud, waste and abuse?

Let me count the ways! I think a great example is LAUSD pays a penalty every year — called R2 — for having too many administrators for the amount of teachers that we have. So we pay this fine to the state of California. Why is that?

LAist: ...Well, at least in part because LAUSD has teachers working in 'coordinator' roles that the state counts as 'administrators.' LAUSD notes that the state has granted San Diego Unified a permanent exemption for these coordinators, and that LAUSD could avoid those penalties by also getting this exemption. Is that waste?

That would be something that I think our stakeholders would need to weigh in on.

The other thing I think is the headquarters building downtown — the Beaudry building. Why do we have to have such a large footprint downtown? During COVID-19, the entire workforce has seen the potential of remote working. Can we reposition some of these administrators to be school-site professionals supporting the work of local schools?

We've got kids coming in every year — they need resources. We have to be able to get those resources into the classroom. When we look at something like this oversized bureaucracy downtown and we see our local schools hurting — it's not fair.

In 2018, the L.A. County Office of Education presented to the board and said, 'If you don't stop overspending, the board will lose its power.' It was serious. I mean, it was embedded, it was underneath a bunch of other issues happening at the time, but it was serious. Every single year, we don't have the funds to serve our kids well.

LAist: Among the strains on LAUSD's budget are the rising costs of benefits and pensions. A few years ago, then-candidate Nick Melvoin ran for office suggesting that new employees might be given the option to pick different healthcare plans — or forego LAUSD's lifetime health care package — in exchange for higher starting salaries. UTLA has taken steps to protect employee benefits. Do you think we should revisit the way district employee benefits are handled?

It's an excellent question and I've heard that those concepts circulated. But I'm approaching this as an LAUSD mom. I care deeply about our teachers.

At the school I work for, we pay our teachers 13% higher than the district and still manage a budget surplus — but that's at the school-site level. That's where I'm like, where is this huge pie that gets consumed by our downtown bureaucracy that is absent from our school sites?

LAist: Do you support Proposition 15?

Yes. Our kids can't wait. Every year we have a graduating class that leaves and prepares for the future college or career. This is a bigger concept; this is about truly investing in the next generation.


SCHOOL POLICE

LAist: Moving into an issue that generated a lot of headlines over the summer: the role of the L.A. School Police Department. For starters, should LAUSD employ its own sworn police force?

I welcome this dialogue because I see that social injustice has taken the forefront of the conversation as it should this year.

We see higher rates of our most vulnerable populations in disciplinary practices. But there is another part of this dialogue, which is about, 'What is truly the role of school police?' I work at a comprehensive high school. Our school resource officer is a part of our emergency response — earthquakes, wildfires. His role is the safety of our students. He investigates cyberbullying, which is a massive problem in our schools.

What are all of the injustices for our historically underrepresented groups? The students who continue to suffer at the hands of our poor disciplinary practices? There's a systemic issue within our education system.

The school resource officer ... If we're talking about very specifically guns, weapons, violence on campuses — that is a reality because of the gun laws that we have in this country.

So this is a nuanced discussion. I do want students to consistently and always be at the forefront of this, because every single adult in a school has to put the well-being of that child at the absolute center of everything that they do.

LAist: On the point about discipline — suspensions are way down in LAUSD, though some racial disparities do still remain. L.A. School Police would point out that arrests are also way down — so some of the statistics that have been cited about the disproportionality of students being arrested don't take into account that over time, the police force have sent more students into diversion programs. They say they've made big strides. Do those strides address the problem in your view?

If there was no school police and it was only LAPD, I think that we would be in a much worse situation.

I want to reflect on the root cause of all of this. Why is it our Black students are arrested at higher rates even if overall rates are decreasing? It's not in an equitable place right now.

There's a systemic, societal issue. If we're not all aware of it, we should be. Correcting those injustices in our public education system is a part of the problem as a whole. So we need to have board members, constituents, every onsite school educator, everybody, as part of this dialogue about how we can ensure that those injustices are corrected.

LAist: Over the summer, a divided school board voted 4-3 to cut the L.A. School Police Department budget by 35% — which is about $25 million. Would you have joined the four board members who voted to make this cut?

The board right now is such a strange beast to me. This is why I'm running.

I would have directed the conversation to be— I am so laser-focused on this root cause thing, where we talk about our kids and the injustices that our children face.

I want to talk about diversity hires. I want to talk about implicit bias training for the district's hiring managers. I want to have our workforce reflect our student population. I want to see mentoring going on that shows our Black and Brown children that this is the world is your oyster. There is so much untapped potential. And I want them to see that inside the classroom and to have it be a really empowering process.

If I was a board member, you would hear me talk about that constantly. And it's one single time in a board meeting. It would be a constant part of the dialogue; let's put these children at the very center of our discussions at all times.

LAist: So how would you amend that resolution to get to a place where you would vote for it? Would you vote for that level of cut, but it comes with some of these diversity measures you've described? Write some amendments on the fly for me, if you would.

Well, let's see, you do have some time to crack open my education policy research books and get my staff involved? (laughs)

I'm just going to go back to my gut. I'm a mom of two boys, LAUSD kids. I hear of these injustices to the young men of color — higher disciplinary rates, even things that can even go down to computer science. Statewide, less than 40 Black girls took the AP Computer Science class last year. That is insane.

There are things like this issue that are systemic through our entire system. So I would want to talk about, okay, do we have access to high-quality computer science curriculum in every single one of our most vulnerable schools? Only 3% of LAUSD students are taking computer science. Are we preparing our black and brown students for high wage jobs of the future?

All of those issues, I want to keep that as a north star.

LAist: I hear you. But I'm going to have to nail you down and ask you to answer the original question, though. Would you have voted for the 25% cut? The board was facing incredible pressure from both sides. The resolution came up very suddenly. How would you have voted on it?

It's hard for me to talk about such a hypothetical because, you know, I wasn't a board member. I was a mom watching this happen. And it breaks my heart to see this moment in history.

LAist: What did you want to happen? Who were you rooting for?

I'm rooting for the kids.

LAist: Okay, but rooting for what to happen to the resolution?

If I was a board member, the board will take a different shape. When I say I have a kids-first agenda, this is not a soundbite. I will bring a heart and soul for kids, and that's the best I can offer you.

LAist: You can't tell me one way or the other? I mean, you're going to abstain?

I'm not going to abstain on the vote, I'm sure I would have voted. Look, it's hard to say. Hypotheticals are hard.

LAist: This is not a hypothetical. This was an actual resolution on an important, enduring policy issue that is going to shape your tenure. I think I need an answer to the question.

Look — you want me to write amendments? Yes, diversity hires. Access to rigorous computer science, STEM curriculum in all of our classrooms and all of our neighborhoods. Restoring arts programming — that's huge for me, arts programming leads to higher graduation rates and college-going rates.

I would say, I am sick and tired of all of these injustices for kids and we want to narrow in on one issue? There's hundreds. My amendment list would be long.

Look, LAPD still exists, too. What would happen if we dissolved the school resource officers and LAPD were the ones that had to respond to a cyberbullying conflict? Or a weapons or gun violence threat? What would happen to our schools then?

LAist: It sounds like you're saying still, 'We should still have a school police force' — because you don't like the alternative. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but is that true?

Now you're my chief of staff guiding me through this amendment process! You can tell, you can tell my heart on this.

If we want to boil it down to that, I think the alternative of having LAPD be the law enforcement agency for our schools is not a good option.


Jump to Koziatek's answers on another issue:

Supt. Beutner | Distance learning | Reopening campuses | Funding | School police


Marilyn Koziatek is challenging the incumbent in LAUSD Board District 3, representing the West San Fernando Valley. (Courtesy of the Koziatek campaign)

CHARTER SCHOOLS

LAist: California's charter school laws recently changed in a big way. Under Assembly Bill 1505, it's now much easier to deny an application to open a new charter school — but existing charter schools are supposed to have a much easier time staying open. This was forged in Sacramento as a compromise between charter advocates and teachers unions. But do you think AB 1505 strikes the right balance? And will this compromise hold in LAUSD?

That charter school law hadn't been touched since the '90s. I'm never a fan of staying stuck in the past. We always have to be future-focused. So we need a change — and I think everyone in the community would say so.

There's flaws in that legislation just the way there's flaws in every legislation. Then there's flaws in how we apply policy. The board is polarized. It has this ridiculous fracture in it — these old-school, charter-versus-whatever. They have this inability to see past issues and look at how it's going to impact kids.

I can tell you're an analytical person — and I so admire your knowledge on all of this — but I want to be so clear with why I'm running and doing this: there are no parents of LAUSD school children on the board. That's wrong.

I am an LAUSD public school mom, and I am not happy when every single time I turn on a board meeting, I hear about this issue and I am always thinking in my head, 'What about my children?' What about the high-quality education for my sons, and by extension, every single child in this district? What about the failing budget? What about the fact that, yes, our Black and Brown students continue to fall farther and farther behind across the board? Where is the arts programming?

Even in the midst of trying to figure out what on earth we're going to do about distance learning, they chose to meet about AB 1505. We're in the middle of a pandemic! We're taking a mental health toll, we're isolated, parents are frazzled, we're anxious... and then you choose to spend, like, 12 or 14 hours on a policy decision unrelated to distance learning?

LAist: AB 1505, and LAUSD's policy for implementing it, ties directly into one of the most consequential and controversial issues: charter schools operating on LAUSD campuses. Co-locations affect the day-to-day realities at a campus, taking away computer labs or parent centers from the district-run school. The board members you're criticizing would probably push back on your characterization that this is just high politics.

It's a valid point. But I want to keep reframing this, because if somebody wants to talk about using computer labs to a co-location, I would say: what about the LAUSD public schools that don't have computer labs at all because of the budget crisis or other issues?

There are a lot of issues.The co-location issue and implementation of AB 1505 need to be thoughtfully considered with kids in mind. I know that a lot of those systems are broken. A lot of people are unhappy.

But in some places it's working. There are some co-locations that actually are successful. I would study those relationships to understand how two public schools — one's a charter, one's a traditional school — are able to symbiotically exist and yet serve kids well. And then, what is it about the co-locations that are completely fractured? Why is that?

That is going to be a philosophy: seeking out bright spots and best practices. I think that can inform policy decisions so much better than speaking on a high level and always speaking in broad strokes about, 'Oh, kids deserve this or that,' based on a philosophical argument.


WHY YOU?

LAist: What contrast would you draw between yourself and the incumbent you're challenging, Scott Schmerelson? Why should a voter choose you and not him?

The biggest contrast between us is the fact that I have skin in the game. I have two children in LAUSD and we are out of our traditional public school.

I want to bring a representation of someone who cares deeply about kids because I'm in this. I'm a mom and there's nothing I care about more. I think it's huge for our community and for our constituency and for our schools and for everyone — we need a perspective on the board of a parent in the system. That's crucial.

The other big contrast between us is: I'm working at a high school campus in the year 2020. I am physically, boots on the ground, working in the trenches. Schools are unrecognizable to what they were in the '90s and even in the 2000s.

Part of what I do is I write grants for sustainability curriculum about climate change so our teachers can teach our kids about something that's going to impact the world forever. These things are top of mind in our schools right now — and it wasn't the case, you know, decades ago. So we need a fresh perspective, which is something I will bring.