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We Interviewed All 4 LA Unified School Board Candidates. Here's What We Learned

Two brown-skinned women seated on a stage look toward an interviewer in the foreground. One wears a black suit and orange shirt. The other wears a pink shirt and floral skirt and holds a microphone to her face.
María Brenes (left) and Rocío Rivas are both running for the open District 2 seat on the L.A. Unified School Board.
(Ryanne Mena
/
LAist)
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Voters in two parts of Los Angeles are picking their school board members in November’s election.

In the east San Fernando Valley, voters will decide whether to award Kelly Gonez another four-year term representing District 6 on the L.A. Unified School Board. Teacher Marvin Rodríguez is running against her.

Meanwhile, voters on much of the Eastside (plus parts of Los Feliz and Echo Park) will decide who gets to fill the soon-to-be-vacant District 2 seat: community organizer María Brenes; or Rocío Rivas, an aide to another LAUSD board member.

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I interviewed all four candidates to learn where they stood on the major issues for our Voter Game Plan guide. You can read those interviews in full here:

Here are some things that stood out from our interviews and forums and with the candidates.

What Do Candidates Think About The Superintendent?

School board members’ most important responsibility is to hire, manage and evaluate LAUSD’s superintendent.

Gonez voted to hire current superintendent Alberto Carvalho less than a year ago. She contended that, for the first time in a long time, the board and superintendent are on the same page.

In June, Carvalho released a “strategic plan” outlining a series of goals for LAUSD. Last June, the school board voted to endorse that document — the first time in a long time that the school board has put its stamp on a superintendent’s vision.

“It speaks to a unity of the board … ,” Gonez said in her interview. “We knew that in addition to finding a leader who was aligned to that vision, we needed to pass a strategic plan so that the work could really begin in a systemic way.”

Two men sit on a stage in front of a backdrop that reads "Voter Game Plan, KPCC 89.3 FM, LAist." The speaker, a man in a sweater and khakis, gestures while holding a microphone, toward a man on the left of the image wearing a suit coat.
Marvin Rodríguez, who's challenging incumbent Kelly Gonez in the District 6 seat on the L.A. Unified School Board, speaks during a candidate forum.
(Ryanne Mena
/
LAist)

Would a vote for her District 6 opponent, Rodríguez, be a vote against that sense of unity?

“A vote for me wouldn't be a vote against the superintendent’s plan,” he said during our forum. However, Rodríguez said he wanted to rein in what he perceived as Carvalho’s instinct to make headlines by charging ahead with his own solution — like with the almost-boycotted, finally renegotiated “acceleration days” — rather than seeking community input and building consensus: “This is not the superintendent show. This is a team effort.”

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Brenes likes elements of Carvalho’s strategic plan, but also expressed her desire for Carvalho to focus more on collaboration: “The superintendent needs to learn that there are many stakeholders, and it's important to build bridges.”

As UTLA and LAUSD continue to negotiate a new teachers union contract, Rivas added that she hopes Carvalho offers educators a fair salary: “I'm expecting him to really give what the teachers deserve.”

Charter Schools Lack A Clear Advocate

For the last decade or so, LAUSD elections have been defined by an expensive political tug-of-war over charter schools: publicly -funded schools run by non-profit organizations that compete with district-run schools for enrollment and funding.

In our interviews, though, no candidate in either district emerged as a clear champion for charter schools.

Gonez ran with the California Charter Schools Association’s endorsement in 2017. But Gonez hasn’t been a pro-charter ideologue, and now she’s running with the support of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) — the powerful union that has opposed charter expansion at every opportunity.

In her interview with LAist, Gonez pointed out the number of charters in District 6 has decreased by a few schools during her tenure: “And there would be a lot fewer,” she contended, if California law didn’t allow charters that LAUSD had attempted to shut down to appeal their closures to the county or state boards of education.

A woman with medium-tone skin gestures  from behind a desk with her nameplate Kelly Gonez
L.A. Unified School Board member Kelly Gonez (right) speaks during a board meeting in this Sep. 19, 2017 file photo. Next to her, the seat belonging to then-board member Ref Rodriguez sits empty. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Major donors with ties to the charter movement are now flooding District 2 with pro-Brenes ads — ads the candidate herself cannot legally control.

Brenes has been allied with outgoing board member Mónica García, who’s seen as charter-friendly. But Brenes has also opposed charters’ bids for expansion at critical junctures in the past, and has attempted to signal her skepticism by emphasizing more recent fights she’s waged against two charters’ bids to “co-locate” on LAUSD campuses.

“This is not the time for charter schools to grow,” Brenes said during our forum. “This is the time where we need to look at areas where we strengthen transparency, accountability [and] regulations.”

While there’s no candidate explicitly taking up charters’ cause in the race, Rodríguez and Rivas both emphasized their opposition to charter school expansion.

“Charter schools are built to compete with [LAUSD] schools,” Rodríguez said during our forum, “and they continue to take the resources and services [from] especially schools in our most vulnerable communities.”

Rivas pledged that, if elected, she would push LAUSD to flex its new authority over charter schools under a new state law: Assembly Bill 1505 empowers districts to shut down charters with low test scores and block their expansion in certain neighborhoods. Rivas — who has UTLA’s endorsement in District 2 — said recruiting students to LAUSD-run campuses from these shuttered charters would help LAUSD reverse its enrollment decline.

“I am a person who is going to keep both systems accountable,” Rivas said during our forum, “because I am not taking money from the charter school industry.”

How much will any of these candidates’ preferences matter within the framework of AB 1505? It’s not clear — after all, the law also includes safeguards against closure for “high-performing” charters. The law took effect after the pandemic began, so we really don’t know its limits yet.

Total 'Defunding' Of School Police Seems Unlikely

Two years ago, school board members voted 4-3 to cut the L.A. School Police Department’s budget by 35%, triggering immediate layoffs of sworn law enforcement officers.

Student activists, Black Lives Matter L.A., and UTLA had wanted the board to go further; all had called for pulling all funding from LASPD. They applauded the June 2020 vote as a step in the right direction and hoped that, in time, the board would enact further cuts.

But since then, the board hasn’t touched LASPD’s budget — and when we asked the candidates whether the district should continue to employ school police officers, none of the four said “no.”

A brown-skinned woman wearing a pinkest-red sweater sits in a chair, speaking into a microphone.
Rocío Rivas is running for the open seat in Los Angeles Unified's board district 2.
(Ryanne Mena
/
LAist)

Each of the candidates said their overall sympathies lie with the activists. Rivas’ eyes welled with tears as she spoke about fears that police might see a student like her son — “a perfect kid” — as a “criminal” because of his race or appearance. Brenes said the East L.A. organization she runs, InnerCity Struggle, had organized alongside some of the same student activist groups to end harsh discipline policies.

“In an ideal world, there would be no need for sworn personnel within the school district,” Gonez said, calling her vote for the 35% cut “the right decision.” Rodríguez said his “vision for LAUSD is police-free campuses.”

But idealist visions aside, how should LAUSD handle policing and school security in the future?

Brenes said she would be open to more cuts to the police department if it freed up the funds for LAUSD to create more restorative justice programs and alternatives to punitive discipline.

Gonez and Rivas both said LAUSD would need to study alternatives before reducing its police force any further. Rodríguez and Rivas said police officers have ongoing roles to play in handling off-campus security threats.

Rivas noted many Latino parents she encounters “are totally opposed” to further police cuts: “How can we help them feel secure and address their concerns, but also address the needs of this other group who feels very fearful and are very adamant of not having any police? There's always middle ground.”

What Should LAUSD Do About Enrollment?

Twenty years ago, LAUSD enrolled more than 730,000 students. But Los Angeles County’s birth rate has been declining for years — and high housing costs within LAUSD’s boundaries have sent families fleeing. One in five students now attends a charter school, not a district-run program.

The pandemic appears to have compounded these challenges, leading to a sharp drop in enrollment last year — though this year, preliminary enrollment figures show less-dramatic losses.

Several candidates said LAUSD should take advantage of California’s expansion of transitional kindergarten, luring families with the free early childhood education opportunity, and convincing those families to stay as those students enter their K-12 years.

Gonez also said LAUSD officials should use school choice options more strategically, pointing for example to a dual language program started in Sunland-Tujunga to capture families who previously fled for a similar program in neighboring Glendale Unified: “It's not a magnet for all or choice for all. It has to be strategic.”

Rivas said she’d push the district to mind its curb appeal, saying that scorching-hot playground pavement and peeling paint-jobs fuel parents’ skepticism of LAUSD. Broken cabinets in classrooms and overflowing toilets are likely to drive parents to a charter with newer facilities, even if the education there is no better, Rivas said.

A brown-skinned woman speaks into a microphone. She is wearing a black blazer over a bright orange sweater.
María Brenes is running for the open seat in Los Angeles Unified's Board District 2.
(Ryanne Mena
/
LAist)

“Middle school, I think, is still a big gap,” Brenes said, saying the district could focus on creating more personalized programs that help students with the transition from tight-knit elementary campuses to big, intimidating secondary schools. She theorized middle school is a moment when many parents start exploring other options.

Rodríguez pointed to the community schools model — which emphasizes wraparound social services for families, parent involvement, extracurricular activities for students and giving teachers more autonomy — as a framework for rebuilding confidence in public education: “Public school is constantly being bashed.”

Though LAUSD’s finances are solid for now, the candidates were alert to the possibility that LAUSD may need to consider closing schools in the not-so-distant future if present trends don’t reverse. All pledged to do their utmost to avoid this scenario, which they said would likely be ruinous to vulnerable students.

“I think we have a window to find solutions” to avoid closing schools, Brenes said. “The window is right now.”

Other Points Worth Mentioning

  • Student Equity Needs Index: LAUSD distributes a huge portion of its funding for high-needs students through an index, known as “SENI.” The idea is that in a district where the vast majority of schools are low-income, LAUSD would look at additional metrics — like measures of community health or violence — to target money at schools with the most extreme student challenges. Brenes has been part of the coalition lobbying for SENI from the beginning. But an independent evaluation found that, so far, the results of the SENI funding experiment have been mixed. Both Gonez and Rivas noted they were open to changes to the index.
  • Special education: Rivas noted that the federal government has promised to cover 40% of the average cost to educate students with disabilities, but has only actually come through with funding to cover the equivalent of 15-20% of LAUSD’s special education costs. Rivas pledged not only to lobby for more funding, but also to analyze how LAUSD delivers special education services to ensure parents feel empowered to speak up on behalf of their students. Brenes — who’s the parent of a student in LAUSD who receives special education services — urged LAUSD to reduce class sizes and focus on the process of drawing up individualized education plans for students as a means of improving its services. Students with disabilities, Brenes added, “are spoken about as economic burdens when in fact they are our greatest gift.”
  • Union power: I asked Rodríguez about the misgivings that SEIU Local 99 — the district’s second-largest union, for service workers — had expressed over the “acceleration days” controversy. SEIU leaders complained the district hadn’t consulted them about the compromise, which caused a last-minute shake-up in LAUSD’s calendar — and thus, SEIU’s work schedules. But Rodríguez said these unions mostly benefit from UTLA’s influence: “I don't hear them complain when there's a ‘me too’ clause” that increases SEIU members’ pay if UTLA members ever bargain for a larger salary increase. Rodríguez also noted that it was appropriate for LAUSD to consult teachers first: “The people who were affected by acceleration days were going to be teachers.”
What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

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