LA School Board Election 2020 Candidate Q&A: Patricia Castellanos
Patricia Castellanos has worked in local government in Los Angeles for years, currently as an aide to County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. She's also a former leader of labor-allied advocacy groups, like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and Reclaim Our Schools L.A.
Castellanos, 50, has never been elected to office — but aims to change that on Nov. 3. She's running for the opening on the L.A. Unified school board in District 7, which runs from San Pedro north into South L.A.
Castellanos is also the parent of a second-grader at an LAUSD school in Harbor City.
She and her opponent, Tanya Ortiz Franklin, both recently sat down for interviews with KPCC/LAist.
SUMMARY OF CASTELLANOS' ANSWERS
Click on each section heading to jump to Castellanos' full response.
- On Supt. Austin Beutner: Castellanos offered guarded praise of the superintendent for his pandemic response, saying he hasn't let red tape stop LAUSD from meeting vulnerable students' needs. She also said board members ought to begin rolling back the emergency spending powers they delegated to him last March.
- On distance learning: Castellanos said LAUSD's distance learning agreement with the district's teachers union provides for plenty of live instruction. She said requiring additional minutes of "synchronous" instruction will burn out many parents and students on Zoom calls.
- On reopening campuses: She said high-need and special ed students could be given the opportunity to return for instruction in very small groups — but that LAUSD must first put comprehensive safety plans in place.
- On school police: Castellanos more than likely would have supported the LAUSD board resolution to cut the L.A. School Police Department over the summer, saying she supports moving more funds into front-line services for Black and Latino students. She wasn't prepared to say whether she supports further cuts to LASPD, saying there are too many unanswered questions about how to ensure safety on campuses.
- On LAUSD's funding formula: Castellanos supports an LAUSD formula redistributing more dollars to the neediest schools. She said the formula aimed to correct years of low levels of investment. She said the district must advocate for increasing the amount of funding available for all schools.
- On charter schools: Castellanos called Assembly Bill 1505, the biggest changes to California's charter school laws in nearly three decades, a "very good start." She said the school board is not overstepping its authority in implementing the new law, as charter school defenders have argued.
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 Castellanos, edited for length and clarity.
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 the job?
I think given the circumstances that we find ourselves in, which none of us could have predicted when I last spoke with you, I think he's doing a good job.
Until the coronavirus has passed, I would think twice about — I would prefer to provide continuity for our school district and our students.
LAist: Do you think he's handling the crisis in an appropriate and effective way?
I think so, starting with everything from the Grab-and-Go Meals and immediately being able to provide food for families that are experiencing food insecurity without question about whether the food's going to adults or to kids. There are just such great needs right now — and not getting stuck in the red tape that generally trips up huge government agencies, I think is a good signal for me and I think for all of us in the community.
LAist: You're running as the endorsed candidate of United Teachers Los Angeles. Before the strike, there was a lot of mistrust from the teachers union about Beutner. Maybe that's ancient history now — but to what extent do you share that mistrust? Or has Beutner done what he needs to do to begin building trust?
You'd have to ask teachers about that. I don't know exactly how the teachers union feels about it.
From my outside view, I'm sure there are many struggles that they go through that don't come to public light. There has been good negotiation in good faith to try to make the teaching environment and the learning environment as effective as is possible during the COVID-19 era.
There are still more decisions ahead — obviously, all the questions ahead about reopening, what that looks like. There's still a lot of work that the district needs to do and he needs to really take leadership on. And so there is still a lot of work ahead for him to do.
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?
Yes. I think it was appropriate in March to give him those powers, just because there were so many unknowns and decisions needed to be made quickly. We were adjusting to a reality that no one was familiar with.
We're now six months down the line. There's still a lot of uncertainty, but we're much more familiar. And I think the board does need to take back the authority that they were elected to exercise — and work in partnership with the superintendent.
I can't point to any specific moment or decision that Superintendent Beutner has made where I think he's abused that power. But I think just as a matter of governance, of principle, I think it takes away authority and power from board members; they were the officials duly elected to create policy. I think they need to be able to also take leadership in this during this time, and the board needs to be much more engaged in decisions especially during this critical time.
LAist: One of those negotiations that has become public is about distance learning. As you know, going into this year, LAUSD teachers in most grades will have to provide at least 90 minutes of live lessons per day — and on most days, the teachers union agreed their members will provide somewhere between 110 and 170 minutes of so-called "synchronous instruction." Is that the proper balance between live and not-live virtual instruction?
You're going to get different answers from different parents. For me, as a parent, I think it's plenty. I know I've heard from plenty of parents that want to reduce the number of minutes of Zoom instruction or synchronous instruction, especially in the younger ages.
I don't think there is a perfect amount of synchronous/live/Zoom instruction. Different parents and different teachers are going to feel differently about that. I believe that it is an adequate amount if we're complementing it with other forms of instruction or supports. Like I was saying earlier, I have heard from plenty of parents who just want worksheets for their students to do — because they know their students are having a hard time with Zoom learning.
I see it as a parent — I see both the teachers and students struggling.
LAist: Two advocacy groups recently helped parents sue LAUSD, hoping to force them to require teachers to be on hand to give more real-time feedback to students. They've acknowledged that in many classrooms, teachers are doing great work, and students will be fine. But they argue that without setting a higher minimum number of minutes, students in classrooms with struggling teachers, or students already at risk, will be put at greater risk of falling behind — so their argument is: raise the bar.
I would say that if we raise the bar, we're going to have a whole other segment of parents that are upset because they feel synchronous learning is too high — for whatever reason, whether because they have students who are struggling with it, because instruction on a screen is challenging, or because parents aren't available to help their kids with Zoom.
I think the two hours is a good starting point. I can speak from both talking to many parents, but also as a parent myself. At some point, once we get settled into distance learning, there may be room for more.
I totally understand the parent plaintiffs' concerns; all parents want what's best for their child. In the case of this lawsuit, what I've read about it in news reports, there are a number of issues: the hours of instruction, translation of materials, devices. I would hope that some of those could be addressed outside the courtroom, without a lawsuit.
LAUSD has tutoring services online, so let's get those families the proper supports they need, as far as tutoring. We need to communicate better with families about the services that exist currently and also scale those up to make sure that they're reaching, if not prioritizing, families in the highest need schools and neighborhoods.
That said, I don't want to dismiss the parents' concerns. I don't know all the avenues they've pursued prior to filing a lawsuit. It is possible that they have pursued all other avenues and there was not a response.
(About halfway through our interview, conducted over Zoom, Castellanos' daughter — a second grader at an LAUSD school in Harbor City—- piped up in the background. Castellanos walked out of view for a minute to give the 8-year-old an iPad, then returned.)
Sorry about that.
LAist: Don't worry about it. It's okay. By the way, how are you doing? Is this whole distance learning thing working for you?
No! (laughs) I have yet to hear a parent who says that it's working for them. It's hard!
I feel blessed in so many ways, and even in the best of circumstances, it's hard. Yesterday was a horrible day. She had multiple meltdowns. And it was funny — her meltdown happened on the same day as the L.A. Times ran a story, basically, about kids having tantrums on Zoom, in plain view of classmates and teachers. I was like, 'Oh, of course, this is going to happen today!' So it's hard.
Jump to Castellanos' answers on another issue:
LAist: L.A. County has seemingly ruled out hybrid learning reopenings until at least November, but dozens of L.A. County schools have decided to invite some students back for limited, small-group instruction. Superintendent Beutner is not pursuing that option right now, favoring one-on-one, appointment-only tutoring sessions for now. Is that appropriate? Or should LAUSD be pursuing small group instruction?
Versus one-on-one instruction?
LAist: Well, there's obviously a range of options. The County has said it's safe to reopen a campus for up to 10% of the student population at a time. LAUSD is not allowing any more than 1% of a school's population back.
Well, the county says it's safe so long as certain protocols and practices are in place on those campuses. The question for me is whether the district — site by site — has the ability and the capacity to follow those protocols and guidelines.
I was just talking to a friend last night who has a special needs student ... To the extent that we're going to phase in in-person instruction, I certainly believe there is a case to be made for our high-need and special ed students to be given the opportunity to come back sooner. There needs to be plans put in place that include, in this case, the administrators, the teachers and the families.
We'll soon hopefully find out — if that is made available — how many families will feel comfortable sending their children back. But it's worthwhile to try to figure and plan for, I would say, very small group instruction — I don't know what the number is.
Again, it depends. There's just so many unique needs that students have, especially special ed students. Some require one-on-one instruction or support.
LAist: The teachers union has expressed skepticism about campuses reopening beyond Beutner's plans for limited one-on-one services. You're the standard-bearer for UTLA in this race. When you say, 'Yeah, I think we should consider some small groups,' to what extent does that mean you disagree with UTLA?
I don't think I would substantively disagree with them. What I read them saying is that they want to make sure that health and safety protocols are in place. I would, as a parent, want to make sure the same thing — that it is safe. That is the fundamental threshold.
This applies to everyone in every workplace right now: There are workers that are back at work that are scared and don't feel like it's safe, but don't feel like they have a choice. In many cases, those workers are there making a choice between safety and paying their rent. Every worker faces this question in our economy.
Fundamentally that is the question I hear teachers asking: Is it safe for me to go back to work? And in this case, it's not just their individual health, but it's that of the students, others on campus, and teachers' families. With COVID, there's a lot we don't know — but what we do know is that the community transmission is high and the virus can spread quickly.
LAist: Over the summer, a divided school board voted 4-3 to reduce the L.A. School Police Department's funding by about 35% — a $25 million budget cut. Would you have joined the four board members who voted to make this cut?
Yes, more than likely.
There are a few things at play here. One is the longstanding demand to invest in our highest-need schools and students — and to find ways to put resources into frontline supports for students, especially Black and Brown students in our district. I think it is vital, and important. It predates COVID. I think it goes a long way to addressing so many of the needs that affect our students academically, mentally, emotionally.
What I've heard from students and from listening to the board conversations, the presence of school police on campuses has made students feel targeted, traumatized and unsafe. This is not a new issue. There's a moment, nationally, that continues; we are continuing to see the protests. That is real.
I believe those students when they voice those concerns. I do think that that needs to be addressed. I know the board and staff are in the middle of figuring out how to address that.
LAist: The vote was the result of a compromise between activists calling for a complete defunding, and board members uncomfortable with more drastic cuts. Would you have wanted the cut to be smaller or larger? Or another way to put it: what's the role of L.A. School Police, and should that department be bigger or smaller?
This is the conversation happening right now with the board and the superintendent's task force: What is the role of the school police department?
I would see it maybe not so much as "What is their role?" but instead, "What is the need?" The issue at hand is safety. The question we need to ask is, "The safety of whom or of what?"
First is the safety of our students; What are the right mechanisms and strategies to create a safe environment for our students? There is the safety of the adults on campus — administrators, teachers. What does safety look like for them? What do they need to feel safe?
And then, I've seen a few threads on the safety of the security of our physical campuses, our schools, our buildings. What does it require for our physical buildings to be safe and secure?
There needs to be a different response for each of those. In some cases that response is school police. In some cases, it's not appropriate for the response to be school police.
I would much rather see investments in front-line supports for students. I'd much rather see that we partner with organizations that have experience in working, especially, with older students, to provide the proper interventions for them. Each of those is going to come with a different set of costs.
I don't want to set aside the question of safety. I just think safety looks different and means different things, depending on who it is or what it is that we're trying to keep safe.
LAist: 'Safety means different things' if you're a person who's made to feel unsafe by an armed police officer — is that what you're saying?
LAist: Without an LAUSD-run police department, won't the district have to pass off security considerations to the LAPD or the L.A. Sheriff's Department? How does that sit with you?
It depends. It depends what law enforcement is responding to. I've heard about many cases where — even with LASPD funded at the levels it was before the cut — local law enforcement agencies were still called in, because LASPD needed its ranks supplemented by local law enforcement.
Whether it's school police or other organizations that provide intervention and mental health services, it does need to be appropriate for students. I would want to make sure that whoever is in those situations can properly work with young populations.
LAist: If people vote for you, should they expect you to support further cuts? I hear you that there's a lot that we need to figure out, but are you going into those conversations with an eye toward reducing the footprint of the L.A. School Police Department?
I'm not prepared to say that at the moment. I would want some of the questions I posed earlier answered.
As I said earlier, some issues may be appropriate for school police. Some may be a function for some other unit.
Jump to Castellanos' answers on another issue:
LAist: California's charter school laws recently changed in a big way. 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. AB 1505 was forged in Sacramento as a compromise between charter advocates and teachers unions. But do you think that it strikes the right balance? And will this compromise hold in LAUSD?
I think the verdict is still out, and it might be too premature. AB 1505 is a very good start and for now, I think it is the right compromise. The school board needs more experience using the law and exercising their new authority. I think it's worth revisiting periodically.
LAist: Charter school folks say the way the district is implementing this goes too far. They think the district's plans step beyond the authorities envisioned in AB 1505 to create new rationales for denying a charter. To charter folks, they feel LAUSD has already broken the compromise. What's your read on that?
I'm not surprised. I'm sure it feels that way because, for almost three decades, the ability to scrutinize charters that closely has not existed — so I'm sure it feels as if the bar is way too high. Like everything else these days, this is a new reality we all have to try to navigate.
I don't think the board is overstepping its authority, and I think they're looking, first and foremost, at the impact this is going to have on our schools and our students.
LAist: How do we fix the co-location problem? Charter schools sharing LAUSD campuses continue to be a real pressure point in the relationship between charters and the district, and it seems that everyone will have to live with them so long as the state law known as Prop 39 holds. Is there any way to resolve this problem? Or is there no way to turn down the temperature on this a little bit?
This is something that is very challenging because the state ties local authorities' hands in many ways. There does need to be some further engagement with state legislators about this to clarify or make certain changes to the law.
How to turn the heat locally? What I've heard a lot is, in terms of co-locations, is the lack of forewarning. In some cases, parents find out way too late that this is happening. It definitely feels like the district is imposing this upon them. That's what creates a lot of the heat.
LAist: As you know, 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 Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) 2.0. Do you support the SENI index and the project of redistributing more money to the highest need schools?
LAist: In BD 7, the pushback might be that you're redistributing resources away from schools closer to the Harbor, and toward the schools in the northern end of your board district, in South L.A. and Watts. But throughout, there are high-needs schools; there are very few schools in LAUSD that one could truly call "low-need." How do you resolve that tension?
I hear that and understand that. You've heard this a million times: the priority and fundamental issue here is that we have to increase the size of the pie. We have to bring more resources into our schools and into the district.
California ranks among the lowest states in the country in per-pupil spending. That's atrocious. We need to fix that. We need to keep pushing for more resources. Prop 15 may help address some of that. And we need to continue to push.
There's a push to be made on the federal government as well, especially as it relates to special ed and special needs students. We need to better fund that and make sure we're getting the resources that those students need, especially given the mandate that exists for us to serve them.
Aside from increasing the size of the pie, I understand that it still might require some — hopefully not as much — redistribution of resources. But you see a lot of our highest needs schools have been neglected over decades. It's about digging them out of a hole that they've been dug into because of a lack of resources. Digging them out of that hole benefits every school across the district.
LAist: What is a point of contrast you would draw between yourself and your opponent, Tanya Ortiz Franklin. Why should we vote for you instead of her?
I'm running because I believe that we need a strong champion on the board that is going to fight for our students, for public education, and for quality public education for all of our students.
I have a long track record of fighting for the families that are sending their kids to our neighborhood schools and that are sending their kids to LAUSD.
My record extends — way too long now — over 25 years of fighting alongside working families in the district, working for them, to improve conditions both for their students in the schools, but also in their communities, in the environment. I've repeatedly been able to bring stakeholders together to create change that impacts people's lives directly.
As a government appointee, working inside and outside government, I've been able to implement big progressive policies and solutions that improve Angelenos' lives. I've been able to see it through to make sure that the policy is not just something we feel good about, but that has an impact.
LAist: Why this public body? You are an accomplished environmental policymaker, you've worked at the County Supervisors level ... You're not as big of an education policy wonk. Why not run for State Assembly or the State Senate?
In fact, I have been working on education policy and education issues for some time. Most recently, in the work that I've done with co-founding Reclaim Our Schools L.A., and bringing parents, students, teachers together to fight for more resources for our public schools and create a model that makes sense for a whole community — a model making our schools the heart of our neighborhoods and our community
Why the board and why education? Aside from being a mom and wanting to make sure there's a future of good quality education for my daughter, education is so important. If we want to ensure that we have a thriving community, we need to raise the quality of education that we're offering our kids, especially in those highest-need neighborhoods. It's an important indicator of success in their future.
When we look at economic indicators and the direction of our economy, if we don't improve education outcomes, I'm less hopeful about what our communities look like in the future. We keep saying our kids are our most precious asset and yet we are not investing in them. That needs to be reversed.