Ratliff: Fiscal stabilization highest priority for LA Unified in year ahead
Mike Szymanski | August 12, 2015
No longer the newest member of the LA Unified school board, Mónica Ratliff has now had two years to immerse herself in the intricacies of district policies and politics.
As a former lawyer and teacher, she has established a reputation as a stickler for detail who is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom if it benefits teachers and their students.
With the new school year just days away, she sat down with the LA School Report at her district office on the campus of Richard E. Byrd Middle School in Sun Valley to discuss the year ahead and critical issues facing the district.
LA School Report: What do you think are some of the major challenges for the new school year?
Ratliff: Well, I think the continuing priority for LAUSD has to be fiscal stabilization. I think that can’t be understated because just because we have more money now in terms of Prop 30 and so forth, there’s no guarantee that that funding will stay where it is, in terms of the levels.
The governor has a plan of how much we’re going to get every year, but the reality is that current projects that are fixed costs will exceed our ADA (Average Daily Attendance) and funding by 2020. If we don’t do anything about that obviously there’s going to be a little bit of a problem for the district.
To me priority number one is to get the word out and try to get solutions for that.
LASR: You’ve been pretty a strong advocate for fiscal responsibility; how did that evolve?
Ratliff: When I first ran, and I was out there campaigning, and people would tell me, “Why isn’t $7 billion enough?” and I would say “Yeah, why isn’t $7 billion enough?” I mean it should be enough.
It wasn’t until I got on the board and really started delving into the budget that I realized, Wow, $7 billion dollars is not enough because of the number of students we have and the number of employees we have and the number of sites that we have and have to maintain. The reality is that education is relatively costly, and we don’t have enough money really in the long run to do everything we’d love to do for the students.
LASR: One of the biggest issues you’ll be facing soon is the hiring of a new Superintendent. What qualities are you looking for?
Ratliff: It’s been well quoted in the LA School Report and everywhere else that we love Superintendent Cortines. We do. [But] we can’t clone him. So I’ve really been trying to come to terms with the aspect that we’re going to have find somebody who has different gifts and talents to lead this district. … That experience, that wisdom that you get with time is hard to find.
LASR: As a former teacher, what do you think some of the highest priorities for teachers are right now?
Ratliff: I think the district has put a lot of responsibilities on the teachers in terms of teaching the Common Core, without necessarily always having the materials that they need. I have the utmost respect for the fact that the teachers have risen to that challenge often finding information on the Internet, downloading lessons, sharing with each other and so forth. But I think that in the long run we need to do a better job in providing the teachers with the materials to help our students succeed.
LASR: In recent years, issues with MiSiSi and iPads have undermined public trust in the district. Is there something the board can do to help restore that?
Ratliff: Superintendent Cortines has done an excellent job of working to restore basic functionality, and I think when things function, people develop trust. It did restore some trust at least at the school level that somebody in the district cared and was working to make sure that they had what they needed to get things done.
It will take time for us as a district to build more trust in terms of yes, we’re here and we are going to make good decisions.
The reality is that bad decisions were made, and it’s going to take some time to convince people that the current school board and the current superintendent are not going to make the same egregious mistakes.
LASR: Is there a need to ease the tensions between the pro- and anti-charter interests in the school district?
Ratliff: It’s really important for all of us to realize that parents want what is best for their kids and they really don’t care what the name is on the outside of the school. They just care that when they walk in, people are friendly and responsive, and the teachers provide the instruction that their child needs. I think that’s what parents care most about.
What we’re going to have to do as a district is figure out is how are we going to deal with the proliferation of charter schools because there’s no rhyme or reason in terms of locations. I have no problem with charter schools; my mom teaches at a charter school in Arizona. My issue is we continue to put more and more schools in certain areas which increases the density of the schools, but it’s not necessarily tied to schools overflowing — for whatever reason, that’s just the popular location to have a school. This causes problems because then all the schools in that area are if you will, fighting over the students, in terms that the student is the resource, and they are fighting for the resource.
In the long run we should be working with our charter schools to try to figure out ways that would make sense for further development.
LASR: Some longtime observers of the school board have said that you are one of the most unpredictable of the board members, what do you think about that?
Ratliff: I’m surprised actually. I feel like I’m always very transparent about what I’m going to do and why. I’m a little surprised that that’s the descriptor.
Independence, I think is important, and one of the things that’s important to me was that when I was running, and I was campaigning and was listening to people talk about the school board and politics in general was how much they distrusted electeds and felt that politicians were just in it for themselves and would just follow the party line if you will and just stop listening to the voters.
So it was really important to me that every decision I make is thought out in terms of my mandate, which is basically a transparent LAUSD that makes good decisions in terms of our resources, our finances and educating our students, which is the whole reason we’re here. It’s the only reason we exist is to educate youth, that’s it.
If every decision is not guided by that, then it’s a problem.