A new era begins as pro-charter majority selects Rodriguez to head L.A. school board

If the new Los Angeles school board majority wanted to signal that change is coming to the nation’s second-largest school system, its members on Thursday quickly made their point.

The panel’s first action was to elect Ref Rodriguez, co-founder of a charter schools group, as president. The board then gave fresh orders to district Supt. Michelle King.

Rodriguez’s elevation, by a 4-3 vote, underlined that a majority more friendly to charter schools — a first for the district — had taken control following the most expensive school board elections in the nation’s history. Charter school supporters were the major campaign spenders, followed by the local teachers union, whose candidates lost.

And the directives to King — in the form of a resolution to put “students first” — established that the board considers the district’s performance unacceptable. Last month, the outgoing panel extended King’s contract through June 2020. But Thursday’s tone could signal a desire by this board to choose its own schools chief.

When he took the gavel, however, Rodriguez called for unity. And he later insisted that his bloc was not so much about promoting charter schools as improving the Los Angeles school district.

“The new board members and I have a charter background,” he said, but “we really are about high-quality schools for all kids.... The board’s role really is to tackle high quality and excellence.”

He urged the board to make decisions that would look wise 10 years from now, citing the example of the district’s recently finished construction program that delivered more than 100 new campuses.

In this era, Rodriguez said, an analogous challenge would be solving the district’s multibillion-dollar deficit — a problem that is deepened by underfunded pensions and retiree health benefits. Solving that, he said, is “what we need to be remembered for.”

But growth of the independently operated charter schools that Rodriguez supports has exacerbated the financial situation by sapping district enrollment. Los Angeles Unified School District has more charters than any other school system, accounting for about 16% of the city’s students.

“Our fiscal instability currently isn’t because of charter schools,” Rodriguez said. “They have some role in that, but … it’s much more complicated.”

In his role as president, Rodriguez will be able to guide district policy and — through control over their committee assignments — increase or limit board members’ influence.

His first notable move Thursday was to put forth the emergency motion requiring King to provide a “student impact statement” for any item that comes before the board, detailing how it would affect academic “outcomes by low-income students, English learner students, foster youth, African American students and special education students.”

The resolution also directed the superintendent to establish a teacher training fund, with contributions from outside donors, that must reach $20 million by 2020. Rodriguez said that figure had been suggested as a reasonable target by senior district staff.

“The philanthropic community has abandoned this district, and I’m upset about that,” Rodriguez said. (Many donors have chosen to support charter schools instead.)

King also must certify that all schools are fully staffed, set up a task force to improve attendance and guarantee that schools and classrooms are “ready to learn” on the first day of school. That would include making sure “air conditioners are working, schools have been deep cleaned, student schedules have been finalized with appropriate placements and classes, textbooks and classroom supplies are available and accessible by teachers and students and parent centers are up and running with a schedule of fall workshops.”

Rodriguez urged his colleagues to visualize a child every time they made a decision. The motion passed 6 to 1, with board member George McKenna voting against it.

The board’s charter-backed bloc consists of Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, who were elected in May; Monica Garcia, who was reelected by winning a majority in the March primary; and Rodriguez, who was not on the ballot this year.

“Today is not about the results of an election but about the emergence of a new paradigm,” Melvoin said Thursday during his swearing-in at the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts north of downtown. An attorney who taught briefly at a public middle school, Melvoin said his win was a product of “the coalition that arose to implore us to lead with a simple yet radical maxim: Put kids first.”

Gonez, a teacher at a charter school, focused on stories of her students and how they overcame hardship. Her goal, she said, was to make sure that more students had the help they needed.

“We have the incredible privilege in LAUSD to make dreams come true,” Gonez said, adding that the school board should “turn away from the divisive politics of yesterday.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Times staff writers Sonali Kohli and Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report.


UPDATES:

7:15 p.m.: This article was updated with passage of the resolution and additional information.

This article was originally published at 3:05 p.m.

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