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LAUSD Board Candidate Interview, District 6: Kelly Gonez

Behind a long desk, a woman with dark brown hair sits on a leather chair and speaks into a microphone, her hands gesturing as she talks.
L.A. Unified School Board member Kelly Gonez (right) speaks during a board meeting.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)

In 2017, voters elected Kelly Gonez — a former classroom teacher and U.S. Department of Education staffer — to represent the east San Fernando Valley on the L.A. Unified School Board. Now, Gonez is running for re-election in Board District 6.

Gonez and her opponent, Marvin Rodríguez, both recently sat down for interviews with LAist.

Highlights

See Gonez’s full responses in the transcript below.

  • On Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s job performance: So far, he’s been successful, Gonez said. His strategic plan sets a vision, and the school board’s endorsement of that plan speaks to a spirit of unity and cohesion on the panel that operates the L.A. Unified School District.
  • On students who’ve fallen behind academically: National research shows drops in students’ academic performance since the pandemic, and LAUSD is not exempted from these trends, Gonez said. Lower standardized test scores reflect real academic losses among vulnerable students. But there are also deeper, harder-to-measure challenges: pandemic-induced trauma and mental health challenges. The district needs a holistic and equitable recovery.
  • On LAUSD’s enrollment decline: Gonez noted that some of the causes of enrollment decline are outside the district’s normal purview: a declining birthrate and rising costs of living mean fewer school-aged kids living in L.A. But LAUSD can do more to attract and retain the region’s families, especially through the creation of choice programs.
  • On LAUSD’s budget: Gonez also called on LAUSD to continue offering fair and competitive compensation and benefits. She also said LAUSD must ensure these dollars are spent directly supporting school sites’ needs. The district should receive more revenues, including for services other government entities ought to be providing but that have actually fallen into LAUSD’s lap, such as mental health care.
  • On charter schools: The district must hold charter schools accountable for students’ outcomes, and state law requires LAUSD to shut down schools that aren’t measuring up. Schools can always appeal the district board’s decisions to the state and county level, which can be a source of frustration. Gonez noted that a pandemic-imposed pause on charter renewals has perhaps inflated the number of schools that remain open.
  • On school police: Gonez stands by her June 2020 vote to cut the L.A. School Police Department’s budget by 35%. She also favors an incremental approach going forward, saying the district needs to explore and build alternatives to traditional policing before initiating further cuts. The district’s analysis of those alternatives so far, she contends, is incomplete.
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ALSO: Read our Q&A with Gonez’s opponent, Marvín Rodriguez.

For more on this and other races on your ballot in Southern California, check out our Voter Game Plan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Superintendent's Job Performance

KYLE STOKES, LAist: The school board's most important job is to hire or fire the superintendent and to manage his or her job performance. So how well do you think Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is doing in his job so far?

That is absolutely the most important role of a school board, and Superintendent Carvalho has been with us for a little over six months now, and I think so far he has been successful in his work.

What we are charged with is student outcomes and ensuring that our students are learning, supporting the staff in our system who do the hard work of educating kids every day, and ensuring the financial sustainability of the district long term.

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I think one important step that has been taken is the passage of a strategic plan for the first time in a long time, which is essential to help ensure that we meet our goals as a district and really meet the needs of all of the students and families that we serve and take care of the staff who, again, are serving our kids and working so hard every single day.

LAist: Getting a strategic plan done was something that you had told me was a priority of yours. What does that say about where the board is at this point that the board actually took that step?

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I think it's a recognition that the board's most important role is to ensure that students are learning and succeeding and thriving in our schools. And our role as a board is really to set the vision and help ensure that the superintendent and then everyone who reports to him, all 75,000 plus employees, is working towards that same goal in a concerted fashion.

So I think it speaks to a unity of the board and recognizing that the urgency of that mission, especially in the wake of the pandemic, but also that 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.

LAist: One element is that Carvalho comes in with his own caché, credibility, and connections to powerful education players nationally. Can the board tell him no? Is the board in a position to say, "No, we don't like your strategic plan?" Are you able to hold him accountable in general?

Well, I think I can't speak for the entire board, but I certainly feel empowered to say no when things aren't meeting expectations.

I think even though he has a large public persona, he also has the experience of being evaluated based on data in a rigorous way. And that's the expectation that we want to set here in L.A. That it's not enough to be flashy and roll out different initiatives. You have to show outcomes for the work that you're doing. And that's what the board expects. That's what the public expects. That's what our kids deserve. So, no, I think the board is in a position to hold them accountable as long as we're clear about how we're doing that.

Improving Student Learning

LAist: Last spring, LAUSD students took statewide standardized tests for the first time since the pandemic. LAUSD has released its topline results — and as Carvalho predicted, those scores came back lower than before the pandemic, and they showed that vulnerable populations were most likely to fall further behind. Whatever you call this issue — “learning loss, interrupted learning, pandemic slide” — how urgent of a problem is it, and what should LAUSD do about it?

It's absolutely an urgent issue. We know that the latest results show many years of progress that have been erased because of the experience of the pandemic. I think there's also a lot of other impacts of the pandemic that we don't necessarily have quantifiable data to be able to point to, but also remain urgent.

The mental health challenges and unmet needs on that front existed prior to March of 2020. I think they just have been greatly exacerbated.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board president and District 6 candidate

That's why a holistic and equitable recovery from the pandemic and all of the different impacts it had on students will be the most important issue that the board tackles if I'm re-elected in my next term. And it's going to take a lot of sustained work — maybe two years to experience these impacts. It's going to be a lot of years to be able to make the progress that we need to get kids fully on track, both in terms of their learning, graduation, college readiness, but also in terms of the mental health impacts and other challenges we're seeing at our school site.

LAist: Maybe we can pull those two ideas apart. You can always make the objection that all standardized test scores measure is socioeconomic status. You also mention unmeasurable, intangible effects — to what extent are the standardized test scores simply measuring students’ trauma, or pandemic-related mental health challenges? And to that extent, should we maybe not be that worried about the standardized test scores?

I think we should be worried about both. The mental health challenges and unmet needs on that front existed prior to March of 2020. I think they just have been greatly exacerbated.

But I've talked to my principals, for example, and some of them were deeply distraught because they spent years making steady progress in terms of learning. It's not just something that we saw as a result in the test scores, but in classroom observations. We've seen kids not mastering certain skills that we would want them to, missing some of those foundational pieces — so it's a real thing.

I think we can hold both truths at the same time that we have to address the holistic challenges that kids have. If you're suffering, you feel alone, you're struggling with depression or anxiety or whatever — it might be trauma from losing a family member during the pandemic — that will affect your learning.

But also we have to focus on classroom instruction and how we can accelerate kids' learning in our classrooms every day.

LAist: So the drop in test scores isn’t just, "These kids were upset the day they took the test." You’re saying there was actual academic loss here?

There's a lot of research. There's nationwide trends, and I don't think it would be reasonable to assume that we're an outlier from that.

Knowing the fear that existed in our communities and the very real threat to the low-income families that we serve ... makes those decisions more complicated than they might seem on paper.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board president and District 6 candidate

LAist: Some of those national pieces of research talk about how long school districts remained closed, and LAUSD stayed closed longer than most districts. By the time we went back in April, I think about 80% of the rest of the nation was back, either in person or in hybrid mode. Did LAUSD make a mistake in sticking with the online distance learning plan for so long?

I have to really center myself on the community that I represent. And the Northeast San Fernando Valley was one of the major hot spots for COVID, especially during the winter of 2021, where so many families were directly touched by COVID.

I think in a vacuum, that kind of criticism is rational — but knowing the fear that existed in our communities and the very real threat to the low-income families that we serve, who don't have a safety net to rely upon during those kinds of times, makes those decisions more complicated than they might seem on paper.

I think when we reopened — which I was glad that we were able to reopen — in early April 2021, many of our schools' families did not choose to come back. And I think that is indicative of the fact that they felt it was not safe. They remained remote even when the option for in person learning existed.

I visited schools when we reopened initially and there was absolutely learning happening and it was a benefit for the students who did come in person. But there were many families in the vast majority in the communities that I represent who chose to remain online. That's because the fear was real — and it's not just fear, it was about their lived experience during the pandemic.

LAist: What are the instructional strategies that LAUSD should be pursuing to make up for this problem?

I think there's a host of instructional strategies we have to invest in. I think personalized learning, small group instruction, and really making sure kids are getting the individualized attention that they need is really important both on the front end and in terms of remediation and intervention. Things like Saturday school, additional learning time after school make sure that the kids who are struggling the most get the support that they need and get back on track.

I think we also need to support educators, and there's a whole set of standards that they have to cover in a particular time. How do you strive for those standards while recognizing that a lot of your students are starting at a farther behind level than was typically the case? So I think a lot of professional development and support is needed so that our teachers can really make the most of the in-classroom time that they have with kids. Setting high expectations, but also meeting kids where they are in terms of their learning space.

I think that expanded tutoring is important as long as we're investing in the kind of tutoring that research shows makes a difference and that we're doing so in a way where it's not just about offering tutoring, but the kids who need it the most actually do get access to it — and I don't think that we've done enough on that front.

I mentioned extended learning time. Taking advantage of opportunities like winter break and spring break and summer school — not just in this emergency period that we're in, but in the long term — is really important for our students, who we know in the past have suffered from those periods where they're not in school. There is documented evidence of learning that deteriorates during “summer slide,” or whatever you want to call it. So extended time, and working with partners to be strategic about how we use those windows, is going to be important in the long term, too.

LAist: Tell me more about your idea for spring break and winter break. Are you suggesting the district change the calendar and maybe not do a three-week winter break? Or maybe you’re thinking of bringing students and teachers in to do academies over that time?

We've had examples of where we've done targeted interventions, inter-session learning opportunities during winter break in the past. It's usually not a system-wide effort, but something that individual Local Districts or schools do on their own. I think it should be a system wide effort so that a lot more students could benefit from it.

Same with spring break. It's more typical to be done during winter break, but I think we should look at all of those great times as additional opportunities to accelerate students.

Rigor and joy can and should exist at the same time in classrooms. I don't know that we always set our staff up for success to actually accomplish both of those things.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board president and candidate, District 6

Then with summer school — obviously we've had summer school, and I think it was great that we were able to expand our summer school program last year. I think I want to push for more to be done to think about not just the time, but how the time is used so that it's most valuable to kids.

LAist: Summer school always feels like an issue where people say, ‘We could do something more with this time,’ but there's also this competing notion that it has to be fun.

I don't think it's competing. I think that rigor and joy can and should exist at the same time in classrooms. If you don't have the joy, like you don't have kids engaged and kids won't learn to the high standards that you hold for them. I do think it can be both. I think we've got to be better about how we achieve both, because I don't know that we always set our staff up for success to actually accomplish both of those things.

LAist: On extended learning time — this idea has caused a fracas with United Teachers Los Angeles talking about boycotting the first of four optional “acceleration” days LAUSD has scheduled. [Editor’s note: this interview took place before LAUSD and the teachers union reached a compromise to reschedule the extra days.] The union’s point is that these days are a stunt. They see these acceleration days as “random Wednesdays.” Do you agree?

I think every day matters in school, right? That's why we push for attendance and are really focused on increasing attendance because any day that kids aren't in school, learning is a lost opportunity. I think that time does matter. The research shows that extended learning time can have benefits, especially for those who are struggling the most. We serve many of those types of students in L.A. Unified.

But of course, recovery can't just be about four days. It has to be a comprehensive strategy, and I think there's a lot of other areas we're working on to help ensure that it's not just this one effort, but there are many efforts in place to help kids and families recover.

Enrollment Decline

LAist: LAUSD’s enrollment has been declining for years. How is the district responding to this drop in enrollment and is it working?

There needs to be a robust kind of systematic strategy around enrollment decline. And I think while we've known that this has been the case for many years, it hasn't always been top of mind.

The district hasn't always necessarily used data or information from families or really even understood the causes of declining enrollment, which has meant that if you don't understand the reasons why kids aren't in our schools, then the solutions are not going to be the right ones. You have to understand the root causes in order to formulate the right solution. The superintendent's 100-day plan did some enrollment analysis, which I think helps shed light on the “why.” And that will help us, I think, in the long term have the right strategies in place to help us be in a better place in terms of enrollment in general.

In addition to being data-driven, there are various pieces I want to put in place. I think in-district choice is an important piece of our response to enrollment decline, making sure that families have exciting programs, programs that show results in their neighborhoods rather than having to travel somewhere else. If you're in a border area — like we are right now in North Hollywood — families sometimes go to Burbank Unified. We've got to make sure that we have compelling programs for them here. That's true of every community, because that's not the case right now.

Our early childhood education expansion, which I have been a leader of, is a key enrollment pipeline in our district. There's obviously academic benefits and benefits for families to have access to that type of care. But also, I think once families are in some of our great preschool programs, they will want to stay with us. Right now, we sometimes miss out on those families altogether.

I think that's a core part of our response. Understanding where, to what extent, is this the demographic reality which we just have to grapple with as a system. In certain areas, birth rates have declined a lot; there are just many fewer children than there used to be, so a new magnet program isn't going to solve that demographic reality. That's why starting with understanding the causes is so important.

LAist: What do you think the causes are? You mention birth rate, but maybe we can lay that out.

Declining birth rates are a real thing, and in my district, I have an understanding of where that is the most acute of a problem.

Cost of living is a huge challenge. There are lots of families in the San Fernando Valley who are moving to less expensive areas like the Antelope Valley — Lancaster and Palmdale — because they can't afford to live here anymore.

I think that families have impacted our enrollment as well as kind of the reputation of the district or sometimes of particular schools. I guess declining immigration as well — that's one other piece.

So I think it's a mix. It kind of depends on what community you're in. But all of those things are part of the problem.

LAist: Choice is one of those solutions that always comes up. When Michelle King came in as superintendent in 2016, that was her first thing: ‘I want to increase choice, and choice is going to be my enrollment-boosting strategy.’ That was six years ago, and we're still kind of having the same conversation. Is choice going to have results? When can we expect results from that kind of strategy?

Well, I wonder whether, again, is it demographically possible? I'd have to look at the data, but if we simply don't have 750,000 school age children anymore in Los Angeles, that's a reality that won't be solved by expanding choice programs in the district. There's data that we can look at to see whether that approach is working.

I think in some places it is working. I know of schools in my district where they brought in a dual language program and the dual language program now enrolls more kids than in the residential school.

I was at Mountain View Elementary this morning for example, and a lot of those families in Tujunga used to traditionally send their kids to Glendale Unified because they have a really expansive language immersion program. A lot of them aren't doing that anymore. They're choosing to stay in L.A. Unified because of the dual language program the Mountain View has.

School closures can be really harmful and there are other places we could look to to save some money — if it's about budget issues — that would maybe ultimately be less harmful for students and families.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board president and candidate, District 6

It's not a magnet for all or choice for all. It has to be strategic because if every school has a magnet program and the themes are repetitive, you're not offering anything new, then they're just going to be competing with each other for the same students — which we do also see sometimes. I think it's about being really thoughtful about what choice programs and where and being driven by what we know the community needs and is asking for.

LAist: Over the summer, when asked whether school closures are on the table, Superintendent Carvalho said, Not this year, closures are not inevitable, but they may be difficult to avoid. Theoretically this is an issue that if you're reelected, could come onto your plate within the scope of your next term of office. Do you agree with that assessment that school closures might be on the table within the next few years?

I hope that's not the case. I think that school closures, there's a lot that demonstrates just how damaging they are, especially for low-income communities of color, which is most of whom we serve in LAUSD.

School closures can be really harmful and there are other places we could look to to save some money — if it's about budget issues — that would maybe ultimately be less harmful for students and families. So for me, closure is an absolute last resort, and I want to be creative about what other solutions we could employ to avoid that reality.

The idea of possible school closures has been raised in the past, but ultimately, are the savings worth the suffering that could be caused by making those decisions? That's the question. And as I said, I'm interested in alternatives.

The District Budget

LAist: What are the alternatives? I mean, my next question is about budget, so let's get into that.

I think if we look at the district as a whole and the different cost drivers, obviously we're mostly an organization of people. That's where most of our costs are.

In terms of compensation and benefits, we have to continue offering fair and competitive compensation and benefits to our employees, especially as we deal with shortages. But I think we could be smarter about the deployment of staff and to what extent we're directly supporting the needs at school sites versus working in functions that are farther away from kids. That might be a place to look. Obviously, there have been cuts to the central office and other out-of-classroom positions in the past, but I think ultimately, as an organization, are we doing our best to serve schools and are we effective in that function? I don't know that the answer is "absolutely yes" right now.

I think also, increased revenue in the long term is always of interest to me. I have been an advocate over my term for more revenue and more investment in public education. While we are currently benefiting from the investments of COVID relief from the state and the federal government, we know those are one-time dollars.

I want to push for sustained investments still in our schools because what we have now is probably what we needed before in terms of the level of investment in our students, especially because we're not just dealing with the impacts of the past two years, but actually dealing with decades of underinvestment and what that has meant in terms of the quality that we could offer to our students.

Pushing for more investment, especially in areas where our schools are actually providing other services that other entities are actually funded to do — but we're doing a lot of the work. There should be other sources of revenue that we can tap into for those services, whether it's school based mental health, physical health services, employment and training work that we do for our families and other adults in the community, all of those different areas.

LAist: What happens when that one-time money runs out? The superintendent talks about it like a perfect storm when that money expires — where you don't have the pandemic aid anymore, you switch back from the hold-harmless funding based on prior enrollments to current enrollments. Do you agree with the assessment that absent that funding, the district is back in the allegedly dire straits it was in pre-pandemic?

I'd have to look more closely. What increases, for example, from the state level are ongoing increases versus a one-time infusion?

At least on the federal front, they've made it pretty clear that going forward, “once the one-time infusion runs out, don’t come asking for more right now.” Not that I agree with that, but I certainly have heard that from federal legislators, for example. That is a challenge we will have to grapple with, because we have an additional $5 billion or so and we know that that will go away.

But I think that there's still the opportunity to push for more sustained revenue, as I said, in an ongoing way to help blunt and protect us against some of those potential consequences. So I would say it's like either/or, in my opinion.

Student Equity Needs Index

LAist: Okay, so LAUSD distributes speaking of money and spending and stuff, LAUSD now distributes a huge portion of its funding for high-needs students through its Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) — which includes school health measures, measures of neighborhood violence and other non-traditional statistics. Do you think the district should allocate more funding through this index? Or is there a better way to ensure high-needs schools’ needs are met?

I'm interested in more funding equity within L.A. Unified. I think that SENI is sort of the established formula that we have, and so the board has invested in more funds through SENI, which rightly recognizes that the needs of our school communities are very different and that therefore, the resources that we provide should recognize those differences in student need and prioritize our students and school communities that have the highest need.

There's a moral imperative around making sure that our resources are distributed equitably. But what is exactly the right way? I think that’s where folks disagree.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD Board president and candidate, District 6

I would be open to investing more through SENI, but also to thinking about if there are other ways that we can make our funding more equitable within the district. A lot of our investments maybe don't necessarily take into account student need, or they don’t do it in the most appropriate way. So “more through SENI,” I would be open to it, but I don't know that's the one vehicle that's available.

LAist: Wait — in my head, you’re a big champion of the SENI index and an O.G. supporter. Maybe that’s my mistake, but you sound a little bit less enthusiastic about SENI right now. Where is this circumspection coming from?

Well, I think part of the challenge is maybe the moment that we're in — where a lot of the funds that we've distributed through SENI haven't been spent. So you have a lot of carryover dollars in those funds.

We’ve also gotten mixed evaluations on how impactful SENI has been. There is, I think, an ongoing evaluation effort. So I look forward to seeing what the results of those evaluations are and making a decision based on that — that's what's most important to me.

I think certainly there's a moral imperative around making sure that our resources are distributed equitably. But what is exactly the right way? I think that’s where folks disagree.

LAist: Since you bring up the evaluation, if you had to draw a conclusion based on present evidence, what's your summation of how SENI is working so far? What are the outcomes you're measuring in that assessment?

Ultimately, it's about student outcomes, right, and whether these funds are making a difference in terms of how students are doing at our highest need schools. I think it's hard to draw conclusions based on just one portion of the school budget.

I will say, on an anecdotal level, the schools in my district that have received lots of SENI funding certainly feel the impact and believe that it's been really meaningful for the work that they've been able to do in the district. Whether it was — before we started hiring psychiatric social workers systemwide — having a PSW on staff, that they funded, where they were able to address the deep needs of students in that area. They also ran additional programs to help intervene with students and paid for teacher prep time.

So I've seen the impact on the ground. The challenge is it hasn't necessarily always translated into the numbers — we need more.

LAist: You said other programs that maybe we could be looking at. Are there other ways that we could spend this money?

Well, I think in our highest need schools, one of the biggest challenges they face is staffing. I just wonder if there are other approaches that we could take to help our schools no longer have vacancies, to support and retain excellent staff on those campuses. An infusion of SENI dollars and a new after-school program isn't necessarily going to help kids learn to read if you have a vacancy in your classroom teacher position.

I guess my overall point is I think that SENI by itself is important and beneficial for students and schools. But to ultimately get to what the SENI index points out, which is super high needs in some of our communities, we need to look at other strategies as well.

LAist: You brought up carryover dollars. The superintendent has started to talk about these dollars in a way that, to a school leader, might sound a little bit scary. Carvalho has emphasized that schools need to be spending funding generated by this year's kids on this year's kids; that this money is not meant to be banked and saved. Do you support that kind of talk? Should LAUSD go so far as to “sweep” these carryover dollars — meaning: claw back unspent money in schools’ budgets? .

No, I'm not supportive of sweeping the carryover.

I'm of a couple of different minds. I understand the point that obviously we want to spend the dollars on the students that we have, and we don't want to shortchange our students. I think absolutely that's true. We want to make sure that kids are getting all of the needed support right now.

On the other hand, having spent a lot of time with principals in my district, and knowing how thoughtful they are about their school budgets, we've put them in a difficult position to have a long term instructional vision for their school without having a budget that is aligned to that timeline: You have one year of funds, and you don't know what your budget will look like next year. I don't know how they're really supposed to plan for that successfully.

I actually think it's really reasonable and smart that a lot of them have thought about, "Well, I'm investing in this program in year one, I'm going to carry this over to year two so I can, for example, sustain this practice, not knowing what my resources are going to look like from the district."

The other piece of it is: some reasons for carryover are not within a school principal’s control, like around hiring. We know that some of our schools have faced higher challenges filling positions at their school site. The budget system penalizes those schools. It's not their fault, and also penalizing them doesn't solve the problem.

I think saying things like “sweep the carryover” or “You must spend this money right now,” it's a little bit simplistic.

LAist: I suppose Carvalho hasn’t said that in so many words. 

Right, but other people have. So it's not a direct response to him, but there's definitely a notion that carryover reflects something like poor management of resources at a school site. I just don't think that that's true based on my experience and the schools that I know very well.

LAist: How do you improve it then? Is there anything you can do short of, "use it or lose it" that can help schools budget more effectively?

I would be interested in providing more guidance around where it makes sense to set aside funding for particular reasons and helping principals make that distinction between, “This is a long-term expense that I have to set aside funds for year over year,” versus “I don't know, I'm worried that the district is going to sweep my money, so I'm just going to squirrel this away for next year.” There's a difference between those two things.

I also am interested in the district overall. As a system, we have a three-year budget. Schools have a one year budget. You deal with the additional challenge of the legislature and the state having a one-year budget. Is there a way to get to multiyear budgeting for our school sites? I think it would be a better practice overall and I think would help alleviate some of these concerns around carryover.

Charter Schools

LAist: What do you see as the school board's role in overseeing charter schools? And do you think it's the board's job to find ways to shut these schools down?

The district's role is as the overseer of the schools that have been authorized in L.A.. Unified, and it's our job to make sure that schools are held accountable for the services, supports, and results that students experience at their school sites.

I think we have to ensure accountability around outcomes and making sure that the charters we oversee are actually serving students well.

When they're not, absolutely — I think the law requires us to take action to make sure that students aren't harmed by low-quality education being offered.

LAist: The number of students in charter schools has remained level, if not dipped a little bit, at least in the schools that LAUSD has authorized. If you count schools within LAUSD’s borders that the county or state authorizes, then charter enrollment might have increased slightly. But the number of schools has remained the same. If it is the district's job to regulate these schools, why is it that number has remained the same when there are theoretically these new tools to say to these low-performing schools, "You need to get out of the business and let us do the work?"

The county and state piece is probably buttressing some of the changes in terms of the number of charters within L.A. Unified. I know that within my district, for example, there are fewer charters than there were when I was elected in 2017 — and I think it's one fewer and there would be a lot fewer if the county appeals process were different. So I think that's one challenge: we have the ability to deny schools’ renewal based on their performance, but then there's a separate decision-making process that is out of our control at the county and then the state level.

But the reality is there are fewer charter schools in my district, and that growth overall, I think, has stagnated due to changes in the law, which I think were appropriate. I think that we'll see more of the results of that as we have more renewals; there's been a pause on charter renewals because of the pandemic, which also maybe is inflating the numbers a little bit. Perhaps some of those schools would not be renewed based on their performance.

School Police

LAist: Should LAUSD run its own force of sworn law enforcement officers?

I think in an ideal world, there would be no need for sworn personnel within the school district. I think that unfortunately, we continue to see incidents in communities that have spillover effects at schools, and we do have emergencies that happen that require different types of personnel than who we employ at our school sites.

But in the long run, I am really interested in alternatives to the current system and building those out so that's no longer a needed part of our district.

LAist: Alternatives such as…?

Partnerships with community-based organizations, more mental health supports on school sites, Safe Passages programs, work around conflict resolution and violence interruption at school sites, maybe a stronger partnership with other governmental entities whose role it really is to keep our community safe, but who are not always fulfilling that role.

LAist: You're talking about police there?

No, not necessarily. Take the recent issue of illegal drug distribution that's happening at parks. I envision a world where the city and community partners could offer a lot more supervision and support at parks so that when our students go there after school, it’s actually a safe place.

It’s not just a problem at Lexington Park [Editor’s note: Lexington Park is the park in Hollywood, which isn’t in the area Gonez represents, where police say a teen bought fentanyl-laced pills that led to her recent death].

Decisions are not usually straightforward and simple, and there are a lot of unintended consequences.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board president and candidate, District 6

It's a problem at a lot of parks near our school sites. That's not necessarily solely a policing responsibility. It's also about supervision — caring adults being present and kids being offered activities that are enticing to them so they don't get involved in other things.

In the past, school police have been used for traffic enforcement — parents maybe not necessarily driving the safest around pick up and drop off times. There should maybe be infrastructure improvements that we could put in place so schools have less need to call police.

LAist: Yeah, but is there some role for police to play as district employees?  Even if it’s in a reduced role, are there still certain functions that the district may need the L.A. School Police Department to fulfill because these are things that we don't think anybody else can handle? Maybe you're interested in alternatives, but maybe that list of alternatives doesn't completely cancel out the need for at least some police to be employed by the school district.

Unfortunately, that's an essential part of the conversation and a piece that has not been fully unraveled since the decision back in June 2020 to cut the school police budget.

There was a direction to look at all of the different functions that school police play and whether other personnel could do those functions instead; whether it would be more appropriate even for other personnel to do those functions. I don't think that kind of full scale review has been done. It's really needed, I think, in order to make there was an interim decision, and I think it was the right one.

I stand behind my decision to cut the school police budget [by 35%], to invest that money in creating the Black Student Achievement Plan, and also to invest in school climate advisors or our school climate coaches at all of our secondary sites. I believe that that was the right decision, and I stand behind that.

But I think my sense is to make further changes, we need answers to those fundamental questions about the roles and responsibilities that the school police are playing and where those functions might go if that entity were not to exist, as well as building out the alternatives that I've mentioned, which is a work in progress.

LAist: As you very well know, there are activists, students in the district, who say,“We have told you we feel unsafe with police on campus,” and they're not going to understand the idea that we need to study next steps. They’ve expressed they're not going to stop advocating until there isn't a single police officer employed by the school district. What do you say to that? 

I think that is much of the challenge of being on the school board in general. I think the decisions are not usually straightforward and simple, and there are a lot of unintended consequences that we have to think through in order to make the best decisions possible.

Absolutely, I respect the right and the voices of activists who continue to push us to do differently and better because that's an important role. A lot of the action steps that we've taken in the discipline space overall would not have happened without those voices, without students in particular leading the charge for changes. I'm okay with that.

I think that there are maybe some additional changes that we can make or reductions that we could make in certain areas to help continue to make progress on that front. But ultimately we've got to build out those other solutions and do the work that was directed two years ago, but which hasn't happened yet.

LAist: I think you can still stand by your vote and also consider the alternative that was on the table in June 2020, which was to phase out the school police department over three years. Would it have been better to give yourselves that deadline? "This is where we intend to go. We intend to be out of the school police business. We won't do it all at once. We'll try and ease ourselves into this post-police world." If you had it to do over again, would you go back and wave a magic wand?

It's hard to say. I think I was, like, four weeks postpartum with a newborn at the time, so I can't say that my memory is the most clear. But if I remember correctly, the resolution was introduced and there wasn't really a lot of time to think about whether or not that was the right approach before making a decision, which makes things challenging.

The role of a school board member I think really requires a nuanced and deep understanding of the school system and all of the different stakeholders that we serve.
— Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board president and candidate, District 6

I do think that deadlines are helpful, and I think that the administration is responsive to deadlines because even when school board direction is provided, it's not as strong perhaps as when you have deadlines in place. I think that component might have been helpful to have.

But I think that the approach that we took was the right one. And unfortunately, you see school districts which went faster and have since reversed course, which also is not what we want.

The other challenge is there are many people — and a lot of parents who I talk to all the time, I'm a parent myself — who have a lot of concerns about the current state of school safety. And of course, we want everyone to feel safe at our schools. So I think that the more measured course is the appropriate one.

LAist: Is there anything else that you would like to add before I let you go?

The only thing I would say is just that we've touched on a little bit in this conversation that the role of a school board member I think really requires a nuanced and deep understanding of the school system and all of the different stakeholders that we serve, from our school employees to our parents to our students, community partners, etc.. And I believe that's one of the challenges of being in elected office.

But I think as someone who is an LAUSD parent, was a classroom teacher, has been on the board for five years during some of the most challenging times the schools district has ever faced, I think that makes me well positioned to continue to see us through a difficult time.

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