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Kelly Gonez Declares Victory In LAUSD Board Election. But Marvin Rodriguez Hasn't Conceded

A young light-skinned woman with long black hair sits at a dais with a sign that says Kelly Gonez Board Member in front of her. Beside her is an empty leather seat with a sign on the dais that reads Dr. Ref Rodriguez Board Member. A white man with salt-and-pepper hair and eyeglasses is standing behind the chair.
L.A. Unified School Board member Kelly Gonez (right) speaks during a 2017 board meeting.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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Incumbent Kelly Gonez declared victory Friday in her bid for a second term on the Los Angeles Unified School Board, but her opponent Marvin Rodriguez has not conceded.

Gonez believes she’s fended off a much-tougher-than-expected challenge from opponent Rodríguez — a high school Spanish teacher who was denied his own union’s endorsement in his bid to oust Gonez from the District 6 seat, which covers the east San Fernando Valley.

“We’re waiting for the last vote to be counted,” Rodríguez said in a brief phone interview.

Though Gonez had captured 51.3% of the vote after Friday’s counting, election officials are still tabulating results, and Rodríguez has been whittling away at Gonez’s lead in recent updates — though at a rate at which he’s unlikely to catch Gonez.

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In a statement, Gonez contended that the majority of votes have been counted.

“I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to continue the work tirelessly on behalf of the students, families and communities of Board District 6,” her statement said. “As we recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am ready to build a brighter future for our students with transformative and joyful learning opportunities, holistic mental health supports, and more resources for our staff so that our communities can heal, grow, and thrive.”

For years, Gonez has deliberately worked to chart a middle path between multiple rival factions in LAUSD politics.

A former charter school teacher and U.S. Department of Education staffer, Gonez won her first race in 2017 with the support of deep-pocketed charter school advocates. But Gonez also won United Teachers Los Angeles’ endorsement for her re-election bid — making her the first LAUSD candidate since 2015 to run with significant support from the two rival camps.

A map of the L.A. Unified School District's Board District 6, which covers many neighborhoods east of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, including parts of North Hills, Sylmar, Pacoima, Arleta, Panorama City, Sunland-Tujunga, Lakeview Terrace and North Hollywood. The neighborhood does not include other neighborhoods east of the 405 Freeway, including Sherman Oaks, Studio City and much of Van Nuys.
L.A. Unified School Board District 6
(Map created with Datawrapper by Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)

Even without the financial edge these endorsements brought, Gonez vastly out-spent her opponent, dropping $161,000 into her general election campaign. Rodríguez spent just $600 — for a stack of flyers — and still very nearly pulled off a major upset.

“I guess no one expected it to be that close,” Rodríguez said in an interview last week, “but we find ourselves having performed pretty well for a small campaign.”

Why LAUSD’s Teachers Endorsed A Former Rival

UTLA’s endorsement snub of Rodríguez confused a handful of rank-and-file union members and grassroots activists, who felt he was the more appealing candidate. A current UTLA member, Rodríguez had staked out positions more typical of a teachers union candidate, particularly on the hot-button issue of charter schools.

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“I was baffled that our union leadership was like, ‘[Gonez] is our candidate,’” said Nicolle Fefferman, a UTLA member and an organizer of the union-allied activist group Parents Supporting Teachers.

Ahead of the election, Rodríguez suggested union officials endorsed Gonez out of “fear” and a desire to “align themselves to power.”

UTLA officials have said their admiration for Gonez is genuine, not calculated. Gonez cast a (non-binding) vote for a moratorium on new charter schools in 2019, backed the union’s call for cutting school police budgets in 2020, and voted to reallocate that money to targeted services for Black students. She also supported other union priorities, like an ethnic studies resolution and expanded preschool programs.

Interestingly, another board member also voted for each of these priorities: Nick Melvoin, who also won his seat in 2017 with outside help from charter school advocates — just like Gonez. But while Melvoin rarely turns down an opening to question UTLA orthodoxy, Gonez has taken a strategic approach, sometimes pulling punches in favor of forging relationships with local union leaders.

“I’ll have to say that her supporters in [District 6] that are members— they felt it was important that she get this endorsement,” said Phylis Hoffman, vice president of the UTLA political committee that handled the union’s endorsements, in a May interview. “They felt she has worked hard to earn it.”

The Endorsements Gonez Won — Did They Help?

Interest group endorsements are critical in LAUSD elections because, following the Citizens United decision, these interest groups can raise and spend money to support campaigns in a way candidates themselves cannot.

Two charter-allied donors — Bill Bloomfield and Reed Hastings — and LAUSD’s second-largest union, SEIU Local 99, supported Gonez. Combined, they spent more than $450,000 on ads hoping to swing the race her way.

But these interest groups seem to have counted Rodríguez out months ago. They all spent far more in the closely-watched race in District 2, where they all expected a close race between Rocío Rivas and María Brenes. Despite endorsing Gonez, UTLA spent virtually no money on ads supporting her candidacy, focusing their resources instead on buoying Rivas.

In the flood of mailers that accompanies any election, “I didn’t see anything [from Rodríguez]. I think I saw one sign in the entire town,” said Angel Zobel Rodriguez, a former LAUSD parent and an appointee to the city of San Fernando’s education commission. “I’m used to people coming and knocking on doors or sending flyers.”

A man in a gray sweater sits in a green chair. He is speaking into a microphone. Facing him is a man in a gray suit, also sitting in a green chair. A small table sits between them.
Marvin Rodríguez, a candidate for the L.A. Unified school board, speaks during a candidate forum.
(Ryanne Mena
/
LAist)

Instead, Rodríguez focused on holding in-person events in local parks — and rank-and-file teachers appear to have rallied around one of their own — and with UTLA preoccupied in District 2, parents generally inclined to follow the union’s lead drifted out of Gonez’s column. Despite broad labor support for Gonez, several “progressive voter guides” urged voters to choose Rodriguez.

“My impression in conversation with teachers who live and work in that area,” said Fefferman, “is that a lot of them were really frustrated with Ms. Gonez, and didn’t necessarily agree with the [union’s] endorsement … and so I think people just decided to go their own way. I think this is mostly a statement about Ms. Gonez’s inability to connect with folks in her district.”

'People Looked For Alternatives'

Parents and politicos circulated several theories about why Gonez’s re-election wound up being so close, but many of those theories center on one feeling: frustration — with the direction of the L.A. Unified School District, with the priorities of its biggest political players, with elected officials in general, and with Gonez in particular.

In her union-allied orbit, Fefferman said some parents were concerned about Gonez’s policy stances, saying they perceived her as too open to a contentious school funding idea last year. They also had complaints about constituent service: Fefferman said she’d heard from parents at three schools who felt Gonez was less-than-helpful in fights over space-sharing agreements with charter schools at their LAUSD campuses.

"Kelly Gonez had failed to engage community members. I think she expected to win easily on name recognition and the fact that [UTLA] endorsed her,” Rodríguez said. “With establishment politicians, in our communities, we feel they come in for our vote, but as soon as they get our vote, they walk away.”

In other circles, UTLA’s stamp of approval likely hurt Gonez’s chances with voters angered over LAUSD‘s handling of the pandemic. Many parents affiliated with groups that opposed LAUSD’s choice to keep campuses closed longer than most U.S. districts — like California Students United and United Parents Los Angeles — gravitated to Rodriguez.

“Schools were closed; there are people that were angry with that. There’s learning loss; people are angry with that,” said Zobel Rodriguez, who doesn’t share these critics’ views, but has been involved with District 6 issues for years.

“And then all the craziness at L.A. City Hall,” she added. “I do think that there’s some people who are looking for alternatives.”

Rudy Ortega, tribal chairman of the Fernandiño Tatavian Band of Mission Indians, supported Gonez. (She has called on the federal government to recognize his tribe.) He suspects a broad bias against local incumbents hampered Gonez’s re-election bid.

“More work needs to be done, and she’s familiar with [that work],” Ortega said, “and we definitely need her to continue the process of the work she’s doing.”

In an interview with KPCC/LAist in September, Gonez argued for the chance to persist in that work.

“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 school district has ever faced,” Gonez said, “I think that makes me well positioned to continue to see us through a difficult time.”

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”).