Less than three months into his role as president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, Ref Rodriguez announced Tuesday that he would step down from that post to spare the school district the distraction of a criminal case filed against him.
The decision marks a stunning turnaround for Rodriguez and supporters of charter schools, who spent record sums in campaigns this year to elect a board majority that is widely viewed as pro-charter. That new majority chose Rodriguez as its president in July.
Rodriguez, 46, who faces three felony charges on allegations of campaign money laundering, said he would retain his seat on the board.
That will leave the charter-friendly majority intact, though his legal problems could detract from what the majority has described as its “kids-first” agenda.
When he was elected in 2015, Rodriguez, the co-founder of a charter organization, was the first member of the board to have deep personal ties to the charter school community.
The charges stem from that 2015 campaign.
Although investigators began looking into Rodriguez’s actions regarding campaign contributions at least two years ago, the case became public only when the charges were announced last week. The district attorney’s office charged Rodriguez with perjury and other felonies, alleging he funneled more than $24,000 of his own money into his campaign and hid the true source of the donations by reimbursing the family members, friends and charter-school employees who had served as his straw donors.
Rodriguez has not said publicly whether the allegations are true or not, but his attorney Daniel Nixon said he has cooperated fully with the investigation.
Nixon initially said Rodriguez would continue his work on the board as before. But his ability to function as president was immediately called into question, including by his board colleagues, although they declined to say so publicly.
The board president presides over the meetings, manages the meeting schedule and controls the committee assignments of other board members. The president also frequently serves as the public face of the nation’s second-largest school system, appearing at events and fielding questions from reporters.
Rodriguez has declined to talk to reporters since being charged, including on Tuesday, when he arrived after the start of a board meeting and left immediately at its close. Although his announcement came as board members were meeting, he made it on social media, not in person.
“In order to allow the board to remain focused on the hard work ahead of us, I have decided to step aside as board President,” Rodriguez said in a statement that was posted on Facebook and Twitter. “I do not want to serve as a distraction to my colleagues, or to any of the other dedicated teachers, principals and employees who do the hard work of educating students every day.”
Had he not stepped down voluntarily, other board members could have chosen to replace him before his one-year term expired.
For the moment, the task of chairing meetings will fall to board Vice President Monica Garcia, whom Rodriguez appointed to that position in July. The longest-serving board member, Garcia has been president in the past. She’s an ally of Rodriguez and would be an obvious choice to replace him.
Board member Nick Melvoin said in a text that he expected the board to call a special meeting “to select a new president very soon."
L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King said she respected Rodriguez’s decision “to step aside as board president.”
Reaction from Rodriguez’s supporters was muted but generally supportive both of him and his decision.
“We believe Ref Rodriguez made the right choice today to step down as president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board,” the California Charter Schools Assn. said in a statement. “This decision allows the board to stay focused on the needs of students, while also providing board member Rodriguez the time he needs to address the charges that have been filed against him.”
Other political allies said they were confident that his problems would not slow the momentum for change in L.A. Unified.
“It was smart of Ref to step down so he’s not a distraction from the broader agenda,” said Ben Austin, who recently founded a nonprofit called Kids Coalition, and has been a leader among those who backed the election of the current majority. “In terms of the broader agenda, I think everybody recognizes that this is a historic moment that is bigger than any single elected official,” Austin said.
For many Rodriguez backers, this agenda includes making it easier to fire teachers, eliminating seniority protections when school employees must be laid off and increasing the number of charter schools. They also want charters to have greater freedom to operate and improved access to classroom space on district campuses.
Charters are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses and are run by their own boards, largely independent of the school district.
The criminal charges prosecutors filed against Rodriguez include three felony counts of conspiracy to commit a crime, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument.
The case against the former school board president is the result of a lengthy investigation into his successful first-time run for office.
In the 14-page complaint, the district attorney’s office accused Rodriguez of giving money to his own campaign, while illegally representing that the donations had been made by 25 other contributors.
The case grew out of an inquiry by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which reviewed the suspect contributions after a tip from a whistleblower.
One reason political money laundering is illegal is because it “deprives the public of information about the true source of a candidate’s financial support,” the commission stated.
The commission referred its findings to the district attorney. Prosecutors have also charged Rodriguez’s cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, 45, for her alleged involvement in the scheme.
If convicted on the felony counts, Rodriguez faces a possible maximum sentence of four years and four months in jail. Melendrez, who has one felony charge, could serve up to three years in jail.
Rodriguez supporters and some observers have downplayed the seriousness of the allegations, noting that it would have been legal for Rodriguez to have openly written his campaign a check for the same amount he’s accused of laundering.
But others characterize the charges as disturbing.
"The allegations against Dr. Ref Rodriguez are serious and we trust the due legal process is being followed to bring all issues to light,” said Max Arias, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents the largest number of the district’s non-teaching employees.
“When the president of an organization has these issues, it obviously takes away energy from the mission of the organization, which is to educate students,” Arias said.
Former board member Bennett Kayser, whom Rodriguez defeated in the election in question two years ago, said Rodriguez should leave office.
“I’m glad he stepped down as president,” Kayser said. “But I think he should resign from the board. Because he’s setting a bad example for the kids and anybody that wants to believe in an ethical election process.”
Times staff writers David Zahniser and Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report.
8 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional comments about Rodriguez’s decision and additional details of the case against him.
3:40 p.m.: This article updated with information about who will preside as board president and the process for choosing a replacement.
2:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background on the charges against Rodriguez.
This article was originally posted at 2:05 p.m.