What does an LAUSD school board member do?
More than 542,000 students attend public and charter schools in Los Angeles. The people ultimately responsible for whether those students are learning are the seven members of the L.A. Unified School District’s Board of Education, each of which has their own geographic district.
Unlike in New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where the mayor appoints education system leaders, Los Angeles schools are run by the school board, which voters elect directly. That makes L.A. home to the most consequential — and often, the most expensive — school board races in the country. It also makes L.A. the largest city in the country in which the mayor has no direct control over the school board.
LAUSD doesn't fit neatly into "city" or "county" categories. Although it's enshrined in the L.A. City Charter, LAUSD operates independently of City Hall. That's why you elect school board members directly. LAUSD also runs the schools in several other cities in L.A. County, such as West Hollywood and South Gate.
For the last decade, teachers unions and advocates for charter schools have spent millions against each other in these races, hoping to seat their favorite candidates on the school board. That’s because school board members have a lot of power. Among other things, school board members:
- Hire and fire the superintendent — their single most important responsibility. While the school board sets policy, the superintendent manages the day-to-day LAUSD operations. The current superintendent is Alberto Carvalho.
- Pass the $9 billion operating budget and decide how it will be distributed.
- Work with parents and resolve disputes in their district over facilities, budgets, etc.
- Vote on every charter school that hopes to open in L.A.
The pandemic and movements for racial justice have introduced new debates with the potential to scramble LAUSD politics. Anti-police groups are pushing to disband LAUSD’s internal police force. An “Equity Alliance” of activist organizations is becoming more assertive in its push to remake LAUSD’s multi-billion-dollar budget to devote even more resources to the most socioeconomically disadvantaged schools. In 2021, they earmarked $700 million to be distributed based on a more nuanced calculation of student need called the Student Equity Needs Index.
What’s on the agenda for next term?
- Enrollment: Twenty years ago, Los Angeles Unified schools were badly overcrowded. More than 737,000 students attended district schools back then. Now, LAUSD faces the opposite problem. The district’s enrollment declined for two decades before lurching downward at the start of the pandemic. California uses enrollment to set school funding levels, so declining enrollment means declining funding — funding that is needed to make the kind of improvements that could entice students back to LAUSD schools. For now, pandemic relief money means the district has plenty of cash, but when that aid runs out in 2024, the school board may be faced with difficult budget decisions about how to do more with less.
- Learning loss: The COVID-19 pandemic put many students at academic risk as the district struggled to implement a coherent plan for distance learning. Grades dropped and many students missed required classes. Among the most ill-served: Students with disabilities, who were still legally entitled to a “free and appropriate public education,” but were left on their own during the pandemic.
- Mental health: In various surveys and reporting, many students say their mental health has suffered far more than their transcripts during the pandemic, and schools have struggled to hire enough school counselors and social workers despite ample federal funding — there are only so many trained counselors and psychologists to go around. The school board will have to figure out how to boost mental health support for students despite those limitations.
- Resource management: State law demands LAUSD provide space to charter schools on its campuses, but these “co-locations,” as they’re called, unsurprisingly cause conflict: Not only do co-locations often force the district-run school to give up spaces like computer labs, parent centers or music rooms — but they have to give up these spaces to a school they view as a competitor. These co-locations are not always contentious; sometimes they’re mutually beneficial. Either way, board members play a key role in mediating disputes over where to place co-located schools — and also have a broad policy responsibility to make the process tolerable for everyone.
- School police: The board agreed to cut the school police department's annual budget by $25 million in summer 2020, after the widespread protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd. It redirected that money into the Black Student Achievement Plan that includes funding for counselors, psychiatric social workers, curriculum changes and community partnerships. The next school board will be responsible for successfully implementing the Black Student Achievement Plan and proving out the value of redirecting that funding.
- Early learning and care: Within the next four years, every 4-year-old in California will be eligible for pre-kindergarten classes, or transitional kindergarten (TK). Los Angeles Unified has acted fast on the state’s mandate, using COVID-19 relief dollars to begin expanding TK access. But an attention-grabbing study out of Tennessee shows that poor adoption of universal pre-K can actually hurt young learners, and there are many questions remaining about how LAUSD plans to implement its own system. While the onus is on the superintendent to execute, ultimate accountability falls on the school board.
- Redistricting: While LAUSD is an independent entity, the L.A. City Council does have responsibility over the LAUSD board district boundaries. After the City Council tape scandal, we asked the candidates whether LAUSD board districts should be drawn up by an independent commission going forward.
There are seven school districts, with two seats up for grabs in the Nov. 8 general election. [Note: Incumbent Nick Melvoin kept his District 4 seat with nearly 60% of the vote in the June 7 primary.]
LAist interviewed all school board candidates following the June 2022 primary and unless otherwise noted, that is where we have drawn their quotes from.
If you’re unsure what district you’re in, use the Find Your District tool. [Pro-tip: Look for Unified School under district type and scroll down to Los Angeles USD.]
Located on L.A.’s Eastside, District 2 includes downtown, Boyle Heights, and Lincoln Heights. Four candidates are vying to replace the term-limited Mónica García in this district. And it’s worth noting: at the end of 2021, the L.A. City Council altered the school board’s district lines. While much stayed the same, the council removed Koreatown from District 2 and added it to District 5.
María Brenes is the longtime director of the Boyle Heights-based activist group InnerCity Struggle, which advocates for better educational and health services on L.A.’s Eastside. Brenes has the endorsement of LAUSD's second biggest union, SEIU Local 99.
- On Supt. Alberto Carvalho’s job performance: Brenes says she’s in alignment with the superintendent’s emphasis on equity, but says his strategic plan, while filled with strong ideas, requires more specifics on getting things done. As an example, she names personalized instruction: “How do we get there? What does personalized instruction actually look like and how do we expand learning opportunities?” Brenes says she has the political will to help Carvalho get things done: “I know that he's already faced some challenges in implementing big ideas like the acceleration days. And so that to me shows that the superintendent needs additional support in the coalition building.”
- On students who’ve fallen behind academically: Brenes says she supports the superintendent’s efforts to help students catch up in their learning and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. She says it’s important for the district to provide after-school programming, leadership development, and academic services: “That personalized approach is really important.” She emphasized that community partnerships can help ease some of the burden on the district.
- On LAUSD’s enrollment decline: Enrollment is “one of the biggest crises facing LAUSD,” Brenes says. At all levels, she says that the district should offer a “comprehensive educational experience,” listing restorative justice, a focus on increasing graduation, and extracurricular enrichment programs as examples. She also says the district could focus more on middle school. Families “are fine sending their kid to LAUSD for elementary school,” but as parents decide they want to avoid big middle schools so as to get their kids more personalized attention, “they're going to start exploring their options.”
- On early learning and care: The LAUSD school board voted to redirect some state funding into the district’s poorest schools in 2018. Brenes said in an early childhood candidate forum that she'd like to see those same high-needs areas get more money to add seats to early care and education centers. “I would advocate for a bond measure that specifically invests in the expansion of early education facilities, of early education seats in areas where the gaps are greatest.” Brenes also said the district’s wellness centers could play a role in providing developmental screenings for children 0-5.
- On LAUSD’s budget: “Public education in California is severely underfunded given the wealth in this state and given when you compare California to other states across the country, per people funding is underfunded. And so that is something we have to continue to educate the greater public about — the urgency to invest in our public schools. I also agree that we need more support [for] our students with special needs, our students that have an IEP.”
- On charter schools: “I'm going to represent all families in Board District Two, regardless of where they send their child to school,” Brenes says. She says she’s heard from families about challenges with transparency and accountability in the charter school system. “Where can we strengthen parent and community voice when it comes to the issue of approving or renewing charters? Are they meeting the expectations they're obligated to meet legally? I'm a traditional public school LAUSD parent, so I have some areas to learn.”
- On school police: Brenes is pleased with the district’s pivot away from suspensions for “willful defiance” over the last decade, and wants to keep pushing investment in alternatives to punitive discipline: “We need to continue to invest and redirect resources from surveillance and punishment to support holistic wraparound services. The school police budget could be one resource for sure, and there's others.”
- On redistricting: Brenes has first-hand knowledge of the redistricting process: She served on the most recent redistricting commission for the L.A. City Council. And her husband chaired the most recent redistricting commission for the LAUSD school board. "I think to have greater transparency, and to ensure the voices of L.A .City’s residents are reflected in LAUSD stakeholders," she said, "an independent commission is absolutely essential."
Read our full interview with Maria Brenes.
Campaign Website: mariaforlaschools.com
Endorsements: List of endorsements (Campaign website)
- Read more about Maria Brenes' priorities and experience on Voter's Edge
Rocío Rivas is a parent activist and deputy to current District 5 board member Jackie Goldberg. She has the support of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
- On Supt. Carvalho’s job performance: Rivas says that Carvalho is still introducing himself to the district, but she appreciates that “he's really diving into low-performing schools” where learning difficulties have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. She says she’s waiting to see whether he meets her high expectations, especially as union negotiations proceed. “I'm expecting him to really give what the teachers deserve, right? They need higher salaries, they're struggling themselves.”
- On students who’ve fallen behind academically: While Rivas sees tutoring as a useful tool, she says the district should focus on pandemic-related mental health and trauma: “If you try getting an appointment with a psychiatric healthcare practitioner, you have to wait at least three months, and then for a follow up, another three months.” She wants the district to improve outreach to families and children.
- On LAUSD’s enrollment decline: The district has a lot to offer, Rivas says, and needs to market it better. But the district has the potential to offer a lot more, she adds: enrichment programs, arts programs, and especially: green space and facilities improvements. “I would say 90% [of schools] are just asphalt and pavement and hot. … Our air conditioners are always failing, cabinet doors are falling … the district says, ‘well, that's going to cost you $10,000 to change three doors.’ Those are the things that drive parents away.”
- On early learning and care: “We need to double, if not triple that budget for our early childhood education centers,” Rivas said in an early childhood candidate forum, adding that funding should come from the state. (Though she didn’t specify whether that should be redirected funding or new funding, i.e., taxes.) She also said the district could provide support such as professional development to independent child care workers and workshops for parents.
- On LAUSD’s budget: Rivas looks at the falling district budget and sees decreased support from from the federal and state governments, but also decades of consequences from Proposition 13, which hamstrings the kind of property tax increases that could increase school funding. “There's just been a depletion of public expenditures, government expenditures into our schools, into our public health systems, into everything that helps the communities.” Even so, she says, school closures shouldn’t be seen as inevitable. If closures do need to happen, she says to start with low-performing charter schools.
- On charter schools: Rivas says her job as a board member would be to represent all students, whether in district-run schools or charters, but that also means holding both accountable. She adds that charter schools should be demonstrating that they’re fundamentally better than district-run schools.
- On school police: “I am pretty much against all police in our schools. … For the district to be spending funds that should be going to our students and using it for law enforcement, I think that's just going backwards.” While Rivas wants schools to feel and be secure, she says she struggles to reconcile the funding of school police with the realities of the school-to-prison pipeline.
- On redistricting: Rivas wants an independent redistricting commission, and said the leaked City Council tapes confirm what she says many people think about their elected officials: "They say they’re here for the community and its voices but the backroom deals tells us it’s something completely different — it’s about political aspirations and political control.”
Read our full interview with Rocío Rivas.
Campaign Website: drrivasforschoolboard.com
Endorsements: List of endorsements (Campaign website)
- Read more about Rocío Rivas' priorities and experience on Voter's Edge
Video: Hear From The District 2 Candidates
This live, virtual event took place on October 11, 2022 and featured candidates María Brenes and Rocío Rivas. You can also read takeaways from the event.
Follow The Money
District 6 includes the San Fernando Valley, east of the 405 — including North Hollywood, Panorama City, and Sun Valley, but leaving out Van Nuys and Burbank. Current District 6 board member Kelly Gonez, who won the seat in 2017, is running for reelection. She won her first race with support from charter school allies, but this time she’s running with the support of the teachers union as well — over challenger Marvin Rodríguez, a union member and current LAUSD teacher.
Gonez gained the union’s backing by supporting several of their priorities including slashing the L.A. School Police Department’s budget.
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. She has endorsements from both SEIU Local 99 and UTLA.
- On Supt. 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 the Student Equity Needs Index: The formula recognizes that some schools have very high levels of need, and these schools need more funding. On the ground, this money is helping some schools fund desperately-needed programs. Gonez is open to using the index, known as SENI, to distribute more funding — but she also noted that there have been mixed evaluations on its effectiveness at boosting student achievement.
- 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 that 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.
- On redistricting: Gonez supports an independent redistricting commission. She said via email that putting an independent panel in charge of drawing LAUSD electoral boundaries would prioritize "historically underserved" communities over the needs of incumbent politicians: "Voters and communities would be afforded a more powerful voice which is especially important in local elections."
Read our full interview with Kelly Gonez.
Campaign Website: kellygonez.com
Endorsements: List of endorsements (Campaign website)
- Read more about Kelly Gonez's priorities and experience on Voter's Edge
Marvin Rodríguez has been teaching in public schools for the last 17 years, including for the last nine at the L.A. Unified School District’s Cleveland Charter High School. Before he entered the classroom, Rodríguez was called from the U.S. Marine Reserves into active duty, serving in Kuwait and Iraq from 2002 to 2003.
- On Supt. Carvalho’s job performance: Rodríguez described Carvalho as an educator who says the right things, but he hopes the superintendent backs his words with actions.
- On students who’ve fallen behind academically: LAUSD should continue its moves to embrace the community schools model, saying that the model addresses students’ holistic social and emotional needs with wraparound services and after-school supports. Once those needs are addressed, Rodríguez contended, students’ academic needs will take care of themselves.
- On LAUSD’s enrollment decline: Rodríguez pledged to strive to avoid school closures, especially in the most vulnerable communities. While some factors driving the student exodus have to do with cost of living and fleeing neighborhoods in search of quality education, Rodríguez again pointed to the community schools model as a potential solution for luring winnable families back.
- On LAUSD’s budget: The pandemic finally alerted the state and federal government to an educational emergency that has long existed, and Rodríguez said that LAUSD must appeal to the consciences of budget-makers in hopes they’ll fund K-12 schools as though that emergency will continue. He also scoffed at concerns that LAUSD could soon return to dire fiscal straits, saying district budget officials have been crying poverty for years.
- On charter schools: Rodríguez said LAUSD can do more to hold charters accountable. He said the board could lean heavily on new state laws to push back on charter schools’ request to share space. The district could also more aggressively seek to financially penalize charter schools that take up more space than necessary on LAUSD-run campuses.
- On school police: Rodríguez said school police officers should be on school campuses as little as possible — only in serious incidents where an arrest was necessary. He said the presence of officers on-campus undermines the sense of empowerment he hopes schools instill in students. He called complete defunding of school police a “goal,” but he also acknowledged the advantages to employing a force of sworn officers who are trained in working with youth.
- On redistricting: Rodriguez supports an independent commission: "It should be the community deciding what the district should look like, what voter blocs should look like."
Read our full interview with Marvin Rodríguez.
Campaign Website: marvinrodriguez2022.com
Endorsements: None listed
- Read more about Marvin Rodríguez's priorities and experience on Voter's Edge
Video: Hear From A District 6 Candidate
This live, virtual event took place on October 12, 2022 and featured Marvin Rodríguez. Candidate Kelly Gonez declined to participate. You can also read takeaways from the event.
Follow The Money
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