‘I want my voice heard’ — Showdown in the boardroom as Latino parents balk at an attempt to name a replacement for Ref Rodriguez without their input
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 23, 2018
*Updated Aug. 23
Families whose children attend schools in LA Unified’s Board District 5, in southeast and northeast Los Angeles, will get to elect a new representative in a special election on March 5.
That’s what the school board on Tuesday decided to do with the seat that has been vacant since Ref Rodríguez stepped down last month after pleading guilty to money-laundering charges related to his 2015 election. But by the time the results are certified from a likely runoff election on May 14, it could be mid-June before the seat is filled.
So who will represent the nearly 100,000 students in the district in the meantime? That’s where the school board members and the full house in the boardroom couldn’t agree.
The school board has the option of appointing someone or just leaving the seat open. Board members varied on their approaches, from one board member reminding parents that the superintendent will have their backs, to another board member already selecting a temporary representative for them and asking the rest of the board to support that choice.
Parents living within the district boundaries but in very distinct communities — in the district’s southeast and northeast sections — also differed. The southeast’s Latino parents, some of whom had slept overnight on the sidewalk, were determined to be included in any decisions. Most of the speakers from the northeast were white and backed the choice put forward by board member Scott Schmerelson, who proposed that a former board member, Jackie Goldberg, be appointed until an elected representative can be seated.
Five of the six board members agreed on the March 5 election date, but only two backed Goldberg as an appointee. A third option, which would give interested candidates a week to apply to be the appointee or for nominations to be submitted, got only three votes, so it failed to pass.
Community advocates, mostly Latinos, strongly supported the March election and a temporary appointee — but someone nominated by District 5 constituents.
“We strongly believe there should be a temporary appointed person who can represent families of BD5 until the special election,” Nadia Diaz Funn, executive director of Alliance for a Better Community, said Wednesday. The advocacy organization serves mainly southeast communities. “We expect someone can come up with a new resolution proposing a transparent process to nominate an appointee.”
But unless the school board calls a special meeting, their next opportunity to vote on an appointee or a process to select one is at the board’s next monthly meeting, on Sept. 11.
One Latino parent in the southeast said it wasn’t as important that an appointee is named, just that Latino parents have a voice.
“I’m not so concerned about the seat being empty until then. Latino parents have been struggling for so long to have a strong civic participation, so I think this is the time to be included on who we want to represent us through a democratic election, not through an appointment,” Elizabeth Lugo said after the meeting.
Lugo is also development director of Power California, a political advocacy group working to inform and mobilize young people of color and their families to engage in civic decision-making. She said her group recently registered 3,000 new voters in Board District 5.
District 5 is shaped like a backward letter C, wrapping around downtown Los Angeles. It covers southeast cities such as South Gate, Bell, and Huntington Park — which are overwhelmingly Latino — and areas northeast of downtown such as the more affluent and more white communities of Silver Lake and Echo Park. Overall, 89 percent of students in District 5 schools are Latinos. Before Rodríguez was elected, District 5 had been represented by white school board members for 16 out of 20 years.
“The staff of District 5 has been very close to us, and I know they will do a good job taking care of our needs until the new representative is elected. I feel good about what was decided today,” Lugo said after the vote that rejected Goldberg’s appointment. “I’m glad I was able to be heard. Our parents need more time to know about these kinds of decisions and be part of the process.”
Sixteen people spoke in favor of Goldberg, including a teachers union vice president. 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.
One of the speakers backing Goldberg, Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats, read a statement from labor leader Dolores Huerta and told board members he had brought a letter with 450 signatures supporting Goldberg.
But a speaker who followed him, an Echo Park parent of a preschool student, said, “I have immense respect for her (Goldberg’s) resume, but I’m here as a District 5 parent who has the privilege and can afford to be here at 1 p.m. and sit here for hours trying to speak here for three minutes, but I know working families who don’t have that capability,” said Justine Gonzalez, who is also head of the city’s human relations commission. “Well done for the person who came to drop off 450 signatures…, but I have to stand in solidarity with the families of southeast for the vast majority who can’t be here today or understand the politics. I want my voice heard. I don’t want anybody else to pick who’s representing me,” she said.
Diaz Funn called the attempt to appoint Goldberg a way “to bypass parents of BD5, some of whom slept overnight outside the boardroom and others who arrived early in the morning to make sure their voices were heard.”
She added, “We support the general direction of Schmerelson’s resolution to appoint a temporary appointment until a special election can be held. However, the process to determine a proper appointee must be transparent and rooted in the community’s voice. One absent parent or student voice (in the process) would be nothing short of the misuse of power.”
Another education advocate pointed out that it was only Latino parents who had to camp out overnight to secure one of seven speaker slots, which are generally limited and given out on a first-come basis.
“The LAUSD has a decades-long history of forcing parents, mostly low income and of color, to literally sleep overnight on a sidewalk to speak for two minutes to their board member,” said Ben Austin, executive director of the Kids Coalition, who joined the Latino parents in the pre-dawn hours. “What is doubly offensive is that only certain people have to sleep outside. But others can sleep in their own beds and just show up and speak.” He said the district had added more speaking slots after the Goldberg supporters arrived so they could also speak.
“The process needs to be more democratic and fair,” said Katie Braude, executive director of the parent advocacy group Speak UP, which organized about a dozen parents to attend the meeting and ask for an open democratic process to fill the District 5 seat. “When I served on the board of LACOE (the Los Angeles County Office of Education), we assured equal time for speakers on both sides of every agenda item. No one should have to camp out overnight to be heard, and no one should get special speaking privileges.”
Sara Martinez, a mother of three who lives in Cudahy, a southeast city, said she had to hire someone to take care of her son so she could be at the meeting, but she said it was worth it because parents in the southeast want to be included in any process involving their kids. “This decision will affect them for years.”
This article has been updated with comment from Speak UP’s Katie Braude.