Absenteeism was a big problem Wednesday night at a forum for Los Angeles Unified school board candidates.
It wasn’t parents, students or concerned citizens who played hooky.
It was two out of the three candidates.
That’s right. About 200 people gathered at the Goodwill Community Enrichment Center in Northeast Los Angeles. But with the election just over a month away and a host of critical issues facing the next school board, two of the three District 5 candidates blew off the event.
The third candidate, Ref Rodriguez, sat alone on stage next to placards bearing the names of the no-show candidates — incumbent Bennett Kayser and Andrew Thomas.
This did not sit well with the audience.
“I am very disappointed because I feel it was an insult to me and my family,” said Eva Campos, the mother of two L.A. Unified students. “I drove here with one of my kids and my husband.”
Marta Alcumbrac of the Los Feliz Improvement District said weeks of work went into organizing the forum. She said she learned on Tuesday that Kayser was pulling out because of “scheduling conflicts.” And then she learned the day of the forum that Thomas dropped out, too, after having criticized Kayser for dropping out.
At the forum, event organizers read a statement from Thomas in which he said “it is impossible to debate the quality of Mr. Kayser’s representation without his presence … ”
If that’s the best excuse he could come up with, he needs to start doing a little more homework.
Here’s a reaction to the no-shows from Miriam Antonio, a Fairfax High School junior:
“I expected to see all the candidates, and I was disappointed that all of them couldn’t come. Everyone here, including myself, took time out of their day to come and see what the candidates had to say about how they’re going to represent us.”
Is it too late to have Miriam step in as a candidate?
“It’s disrespectful, and this really diminishes the goal of democracy,” said Ellen Pais of the Los Angeles Education Partnership, which works to foster enrichment in high-poverty neighborhoods.
There is a bit of a back story here, not that it excuses the absences. The United Way, one of the chief organizers of the forum, is seen as a major force in the so-called reform agenda that is opposed by the teachers union, among other parties. Kayser, on the other hand, is seen as a chief ally of United Teachers Los Angeles. Rodriguez, the one candidate who did show up, is a charter school developer, and lots of teachers oppose charters.
So it’s possible that Kayser thought the room would be stacked against him, and he might have been right. But part of the job is to face critics and defend your positions. I asked a Kayser aide to explain the “conflicts” that kept him from attending, but no response yet. (It was revealed a few years ago that Kayser had early stage Parkinson’s disease.)
Sonny Calderon, another disappointed forum attendee, said his son was in a charter school but he’s conflicted about that choice and looked forward to an exchange about the merits and drawbacks of the charter school movement.
“I’d love to hear a discussion,” said Calderon, who also wanted to hear candidates discuss schools as a tool for civic engagement, and the arts as a more integral part of the curriculum.
He was not entirely surprised by what transpired, though, especially after a recent visit to a school board meeting.
“It was the most fascinating nine hours of my entire life,” said Calderon. “To see the political wrangling, to see the grandstanding … and the power plays that took place for the sake of the gallery was quite disheartening.”
After Wednesday night’s forum, Rodriguez told me it had been a little lonely on stage.
"I just got tired of hearing myself talk,” he said. “The schools are centers for democracy, so unfortunately, the [candidates] are not modeling democracy by coming out to participate civically.”
The quality and leadership of the nation’s second-largest school district are critical to Southern California, and yet voter turnout for school board and other local elections has been abysmal.
But it’s hard to blame voters for their cynicism and disengagement when two out of three candidates had better things to do than make their best pitch to 200 people who care.
Shame on them.
In an email Thursday afternoon, Thomas wrote that he "skipped the forum to draw attention to the fact the Bennett Kayser is avoiding responsibility to the voters, families and students of District 5."
Further, he said: "It seems like it was a really unpopular decision, but someone has to take a stand. Some people may shrug their shoulders and argue we should just continue as if it doesn’t matter, but when Bennett maneuvered out, things changed! To me it does matter when our school board member fails to show up for the community. It’s actually really important. It’s the whole reason I’m doing this."