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.
- Universal Pre-K: 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.
There are seven school districts, with three seats up for grabs in the June 7 election. LAist sent questionnaires to all school board candidates and unless otherwise noted, that is where we have drawn their quotes from.
If a candidate did not return a questionnaire, we will say that and cite the source of information. If we receive answers after publication, we will add them to this page.
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.
Brenes is the longtime director of the Boyle Heights-based activist group Inner City Struggle, which advocates for better educational and health services on L.A.’s Eastside. Brenes’ endorsements include outgoing board member García.
While overall enrollment is falling, Brenes says, some schools have long waitlists because of what they do well — “strong academic outcomes, collaboration among adults, and engagement with parents.” She wants the district to engage families when children are born and build relationships "through high school graduation.” Setting a multi-year calendar can help parents plan. She adds that LAUSD must keep expanding in-district options, like magnet schools and STEM academies, etc.
Brenes says that the district must create pathways for current high school students "to be the next generation of LAUSD’s workforce." Incentives could help there: "I would support funding college scholarships in return for commitment of service post-graduation.”
The district needs to help manage the harms of co-location, she says, but it can also better help schools make the most of their existing space, such as "through the development of wellness centers, special education centers, parent centers," and other wraparound services.
In regard to police in schools, Brenes says the district should focus on improving school climate and supporting restorative justice as a means of conflict resolution. She adds, though, "I would support the creation of an alternative safety plan that will transition away from funding traditional law enforcement."
Rivas is a parent activist and deputy to current District 5 board member Jackie Goldberg. She has the support of the teachers union.
Important to improving the district’s enrollment, Rivas tells LAist, is building a trusting and welcome environment. Not only have many parents been concerned about their children’s health, Rivas says, but “LAUSD schools have facilities issues that need to be addressed, coupled with necessity for shade, greening, and gardens.”
She wants to see LAUSD schools “become sanctuaries of welcoming, nurturing, and understanding … compassionate environments for students to feel understood and validated.” Rivas proposes the development of a social-emotional toolkit that combines curriculum, programs, services, and videos, capable of adapting to whatever scenario. She also wants more resources to address parent mental health.
Rivas is blunt about sharing resources between district-run schools and charter schools. “Co-location is another instrument to drain resources from neighborhood public schools … The sharing of school space is not conducive for either school as it disrupts the school’s day-to-day schedule and routine.” Until the state legislature changes policy to end co-location rights, she wants the district to be active participants in co-location, helping principals ensure the least disruption possible.
On law enforcement, Rivas says there is “a role for policing, but not directly inside schools,” and that all stakeholders must have an “honest and clear discussion on school safety, criminalization of students, school-to-prison pipeline, not enough after school programs and having too many accessible guns.”
Miguel Ángel Segura
Segura helps run a family business in Maywood. He has served as a staff member for the LAUSD school board and as a presidential campaign staff member for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. He recently served as an aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Segura says that LAUSD and many other urban districts across California are facing enrollment drops because of declining birth rates and a lack of affordable housing, which require action from the city and county. In the interim, however, he tells LAist that, “LAUSD can influence the long-term sustainability of enrollment by incentivizing students to return back to their communities to live, to teach, and to uplift.”
Segura says that one of his policy priorities is increasing mental health support in schools and communities. “Community-based organizations have been experts during the pandemic and can partner with LAUSD more closely. We just need the District to make it easier to work with our schools.”
In terms of school police, Segura says that the primary focus should be on using restorative justice techniques that prevent the need for police presence in the first place. “From my time working with families, however, I also see that many Latinx communities feel safer when police are on campus, which is not true for our Black students and their families,” he says. “We need to leverage the role of school police on an emergency-only basis and create an awareness campaign for families to see that safety remains a priority.”
Vilardi-Espinosa is a community activist who currently serves as the education representative and treasurer of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council.
While recognizing the link between population decline in California and district enrollment, Vilardi-Espinosa tells LAist that she also sees an opportunity for major changes, an “overhaul [of LAUSD’s] approach to schools and education.” She says that lower-enrolled campuses should be combined and older, inefficient campuses should be “converted to sports complexes or homeless youth housing, LAUSD staff housing, after-school tutoring centers, or career and technical education campuses.”
Vilardi-Espinosa says that recovery from the pandemic requires flexibility in teaching and curriculum. “Students need to be able to find space to decompress, explore their passion, and enrich their talents as well as have academic rigor.” She adds that the district needs to do more and better communication about options for students to catch up on learning, whether those options come from the district or not. She also says mental health should be part of the daily curriculum.
Vilardi-Espinosa says school police “are necessary and important” to school safety on the inside and outside of school. “I believe in having a one-on-one dialogue in classrooms with the school police officer if assigned to a specific campus, to develop a first-name basis relationship with students, giving the students an outlet to offer information about suspicious or dangerous situations, and knowing the officer is there to serve them.”
District 4 covers the westside and parts of San Fernando Valley. Current District 4 Board Member Nick Melvoin is likely to win reelection easily. His challengers Gentille Barkhardarian and Tracey Schroeder enter the final month of the race at a major campaign fundraising disadvantage.
Barkhordarian lists her occupation as electrical engineer/mother. She is the parent of two LAUSD students in District 4. She did not respond to LAist's questionnaire.
Barkhordarian tells Voter's Edge that her priority is to "give parents a seat at the negotiating table so that when important decisions are made about our children’s future, they are made with parent input." She also says boosting campus safety is a priority.
Melvoin joined the LAUSD school board in 2017. He tells LAist that the district must do a better job “at marketing schools and communicating the amazing programs that already exist,” while continuing to invest in options that parents want, like foreign language immersion programs.
While he is proud of LAUSD’s ability to provide services during the pandemic — “we ran the largest school-based food relief effort in U.S. history, serving over 150 million meals” — he also said the district needs to better meet the academic needs of students, “especially students with disabilities, and low-income students.” He notes that the district is improving data systems “to understand who is receiving the benefit of tutoring or other interventions and to ensure that no student slips through the crack.”
To improve student mental health, Melvoin wants to focus efforts on “high leverage” positions, those that can reach the greatest number of students. He also wants to see the district build pathways between local high schools and professional programs, and expand partnerships with community health care providers.
When it comes to co-location, Melvoin says "there is enough space in LAUSD for every student and school community to thrive," but also says the district has to be resourceful with its existing facilities, which also requires "an updated assessment of our real estate assets."
In regard to school police, Melvoin said “the focus should be to protect students from external threats to schools and not to police behavior on school discipline.”
Schroeder does not appear to have a campaign website and has not yet responded to LAist's questionnaire. She also does not have information available via Voter's Edge.
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 Rodriguez, 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. Gonez’s other opponent, Jess Arana, is an LASPD sergeant.
Arana is a sergeant for the Los Angeles School Police Department. He also directs multiple afterschool programs in the San Fernando Valley. He did not respond to LAist’s questionnaire. His website does not list policy stances.
Gonez is the current president of the LAUSD school board. Gonez tells LAist that tackling LAUSD’s enrollment issues is a multifaceted challenge. “It requires both innovation on the part of the school district and advocacy at the local level to make it more affordable for working families to raise their children in Los Angeles.” She wants to see more affordable housing for employees and families who lack stable housing. She sees transitional kindergarten as a key factor in growing district enrollment, while also wanting to grow dual-language programs, community schools, and magnet programs.
While acknowledging that teachers “went above and beyond” to teach during the pandemic, the district is “continuing to see the deep, rippling impacts of the pandemic.” Noting that the board expanded the 2022-23 school year to provide additional opportunities for learning, Gonez also says she wants “enhanced tutoring programs and more school staff who can personalize instruction and provide students the individualized support they need.”
Gonez wants the district to respond to mental health challenges by assigning available psychiatric staff equitably, based on level of overall need and in communities most impacted by the pandemic. But she also wants more social-emotional learning in classroom instruction, including “enhanced opportunities for students to engage in physical education and play, [and] increased access to arts, music, and nature-based learning.”
In terms of co-location, Gonez wants to examine how other districts have minimized conflict when faced with co-location. Nodding to a board program that provides funding for collaborative projects between district-led schools and charter schools, Gonez says that she has seen “several examples of peaceful co-locations within my board district.”
Rodriguez has been a teacher since 2005, and has been teaching Spanish at Cleveland High School since 2014. Rodriguez did not respond to LAist’s questionnaire.
In a statement on his website, Rodriguez says “we must fight to create the conditions in public education which restore faith in our public schools’ ability to deliver equitable opportunities for all our students.” He lists, as his first priority, resistance against charter schools. “We cannot allow privatizers to continue to weaponize charter schools to undermine our public education system by creating conditions, which force our schools to compete for funding and resources.”
Rodriquez says he wants to see increased funding for mental health and for curriculum that “[supports] the cultural backgrounds of our students and strengthen their cultural and racial identities.” He also wants to move the time of board meetings “to meet the needs of parents and teachers, who are unable to leave work early enough to attend meetings where decisions affecting them directly are made.”