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10 candidates will be on the ballot in March to fill LAUSD’s vacant school board seat

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | December 5, 2018



11 of the preliminary BD5 candidates at a CCSA Families community forum on Nov. 19. (Photo: CCSA Families Twitter account)

*Updated Dec. 13

Ten of the 17 individuals who filed their intention to run for the upcoming special election for LA Unified’s vacant school board seat have officially qualified to be on the March 5 ballot in Board District 5.

The winner will fill out the term of Ref Rodríguez, serving only a year and a half, and will likely be a swing vote on the seven-member board.

On Tuesday, the City of Los Angeles Clerk’s Office issued the final list with the names of the 10 qualified candidates to run in the special election. They are:

• Ana Cubas, nonprofit executive, former chief of staff to Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar and candidate for Los Angeles City Council District 9 in 2013

• Jackie Goldberg, former LA Unified board member and retired teacher

• Cynthia González, principal at Diego Rivera Learning Complex

• Allison Greenwood Bajracharya, an LA Unified parent and Camino Nuevo Charter Schools’ chief of operations

• Graciela “Grace” Ortíz, Huntington Park councilwoman

• Heather Repenning, City of Los Angeles commissioner and LA Unified parent

• Rocío Rivas, LA Unified community representative and parent

• Salvador “Chamba” Sánchez, Los Angeles City College professor and community activist

• David Valdez, Los Angeles County arts commissioner

Nestor Enrique Valencia, councilmember of the City of Bell

Every candidate paid a filing fee, which means none submitted more than 1,000 signatures.

Six of the 17 initial candidates, withdrew. Former LA Unified board member Bennett Kayser and City of Bell Mayor Fidencio Gallardo dropped out of the race in late November to support Goldberg. Other candidates who withdrew from the race including, Scott M. Cody, Eduardo Cisneros, Erika Álvarez and Justine González.

On Thursday, Goldberg announced that she is being endorsed by the Los Angeles Teachers Union in the race.

Goldberg, who served on the school board from 1983 to 1991, was backed by the union and, like union leaders, has been critical of independent charter schools at recent school board meetings, including one in June. UTLA has been one of the two larger spenders in recent LA Unified board elections.

“I am honored to have the support of the thousands of teachers and support staff that work so hard every day to give our students the education they deserve. As a former teacher and School Board member, I have worked closely with UTLA and its leadership to improve the education of our kids and give teachers the support they need,” said Jackie Goldberg in a press release.

“Jackie understands that our schools don’t need failed privatization schemes, but instead need investment in lower class sizes; more nurses, counselors, and librarians; and other fundamental student needs,”  UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in the release.

Also, on Wednesday of last week, a labor union announced its endorsement: SEIU Local 99, which represents custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others, voted to support Repenning, who also has been endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Seven of the 10 qualified candidates are Latinos. District 5 had been represented by white school board members for 16 out of the 20 years before Rodríguez was elected in 2015.

District 5 has the second-highest concentration of Latino students, representing almost 89 percent of the student population. Over a quarter of the students are classified as English learners, and 11 percent require special education services. More than 85 percent live in low-income households, and an estimated 2,000 students are homeless.  

The District 5 board seat was left vacant by Rodríguez, who resigned in July after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges. One month later, the school board voted 5-1 in favor of holding a special election to fill the seat and opposed an effort to appoint an interim representative. Board member Scott Schmerelson had proposed the temporary appointment of Goldberg, with the support of United Teachers Los Angeles, to fill the board seat until the next election in 2020, but the motion was defeated.

The special election will be held March 5, with a May 14 runoff if needed. The winner will fill the seat for the remainder of Rodríguez’s term, through December 2020.

‘A LOT AT STAKE’

Seth Litt, executive director of the L.A.-based advocacy organization Parent Revolution, highlighted the importance of the District 5 election. L.A. Unified “is a district that still does not do a good job serving children in poverty, children of color and special education students. It’s a district in need of big changes and the kind of leadership that is willing to make big changes, so there’s a lot at stake.”

According to Parent Revolution’s analysis of state data from District 5 schools, 39 out of 98 elementary, middle schools and span schools, not including charters, were rated in the lowest-performing categories — orange and red — in both English language arts and math on the California School Dashboard. That’s about 27,500 students not meeting academic standards. Only six of those schools — representing about 3,000 students — were proficient in both English and math, meaning they show up in the green category on the dashboard.

“We’re making sure parents have a voice in this election,” said Litt, who has been working to educate parents about the election, particularly in low-income neighborhoods in the southeast that have a majority of Latino residents.

“We work with lots of parents in Board District 5 who are obviously interested in how their children are represented. We’re not endorsing or supporting any of the candidates, but parents in our network are making sure people in their communities know about the election, about the issues that are at stake, and that they are registered to vote and actually come out and vote,” Litt said.

“The parents in our network are interested in people who have ideas for the kind of change necessary,” Litt said. “Our parents are often told to understand the context of why we should keep waiting or why change is incremental or why is not the right time to take place. … Parents, honestly, are getting tired of waiting.”

Magda Karina Vargas, an LA Unified parent whose daughter attends Ellen Ochoa Learning Center in District 5’s southeast, said anyone who wants to occupy the board seat to represent families in her neighborhood needs to understand “that we’re a poor community, that we have many needs and that we want more resources for our children to be successful.”

She said Wednesday that she is not aware of any of the candidates so far and that most likely she wouldn’t be familiar with any of them, but that they’re welcome to visit the group of parents she leads at her school to meet them. She has been part of the Parent Problem Solving Groups that former board member Rodriguez started for parents to get involved in finding solutions at their schools. She and her group presented a plan to solve chronic absenteeism to district officials in the summer.

“I hope they come to our meetings soon so we can hear about our needs,” she said. “I would love that we would again have a Latino representative, but honestly as long as he or she connects with us is all that matters.”

As it has done in previous board races, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles is planning community forums with the candidates led by students and is collaborating with partner organizations of the Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) coalition, specifically with Alliance for a Better Community, for community engagement and grassroots efforts, including gathering input on what is important to both students and parents, according to a spokesperson.

A spokesperson for Speak UP, a parent advocacy organization, said, “We have sent questionnaires to all the candidates who filed and are in the process of getting them back. Our parents and board will participate in the endorsement process, which we hope to complete by the end of the month. If we decide to endorse one or more candidates, we will announce it in January.” The organization has begun posting interviews with candidates here.

LOW TURNOUT, HIGH COST?

School board elections typically have low voter turnout, and it could be even lower as this is a special election and not for a full term.

When Rodríguez beat incumbent Bennett Kayser in 2015, voter turnout in the district was only 12 percent in the primary election. Latinos make up 57 percent of the voters in District 5.

In that election, Litt said, “30,000 people voted the last time, maybe less, so we’re making sure families — not only parents but the community — know their voice matters, so that they need to come out and vote.”

The most recent school board election in Los Angeles, in the spring of 2017, became the most expensive school board race in the nation’s history, reaching $17 million in campaign spending for the two seats won by Nick Melvoin in District 4 and Kelly Gonez in District 6.

While the upcoming election will also draw competing support from education reformers and the teachers union, Litt believes it is time for candidates to move away from the political divide of charter school supporters versus union supporters because parents “care very little about governance” and care more about having their children attend a good school where they can be successful.

“That’s not the conversation parents or students are having,” he said. “They are interested in when they will have access to high-quality public school options that are acceptable for their children. I guess the less they (the candidates) are talking about their political points, the more they can actually talk about how to improve education in Los Angeles.”


* This article was updated to add Nestor Valencia and Rocío Rivas to the list of qualified candidates as released by the Los Angeles City Clerk’s Office on Thursday, Dec. 6.

It was updated Dec. 7 when Eduardo Cisneros withdrew from the race.

It was updated Dec. 10 when the City Clerk’s Office listed Erika Álvarez’s status as withdrawn.

It was updated Dec. 11 when the City Clerk’s Office  issued the final list of qualified candidates and listed Justine González’s status as withdrawn from the race.

It was updated Dec. 13  when Jackie Goldberg announced the UTLA endorsement. 

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