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Your guide to the L.A. school board candidates on the 2022 California midterm ballot

A person walking by L.A. Unified headquarters
In the short term, L.A. Unified has unprecedented financial resources to address concerns. In the long term, there could be difficult choices.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)
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Two seats are on the Nov. 8 ballot for the seven-member Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.

In District 2, which covers downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, especially to the east, Rocio Rivas and Maria Brenes are vying to replace longtime incumbent Monica Garcia, who cannot run again because of term limits.

In District 6, which takes in most of the east San Fernando Valley, incumbent and school board President Kelly Gonez was pushed into a runoff by high school Spanish teacher Marvin Rodriguez.

The nation’s second-largest school system is confronted with multiple challenges. Students are struggling to recover academically from pandemic setbacks. Enrollment has declined rapidly and is estimated to plunge by nearly 30% over the next decade, likely leading to school closures. Parents’ concerns include school safety and drug abuse on campus — and they want help to address the mental health crisis affecting youth.

There are also tensions between parents and staff when LAUSD schools share campuses with charter schools, which have a legal right to demand classroom and office space.

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In the short term, the school system has unprecedented financial resources to address concerns. In the long term, the funding could drop sharply, leading to difficult choices.

In the meantime, negotiations are underway between the district and its employee unions. The teachers union has proposed a 20% raise over two years.

Managing the district is recently arrived Supt. Alberto Carvalho, who formerly headed Miami-Dade County Public Schools and is among the nation’s most experienced district administrators. He has developed — and the school board has adopted — a strategic plan for next four years. Evaluating Carvalho and guiding his efforts will be members of the school board, who also must answer to parents and employee groups.

The candidates are listed below in the order they appear on the ballot. Click on the candidate photo for short video answers to five questions posed to them from The Times. Rivas declined to participate in the interviews.

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District 2: Rocio Rivas vs. Maria Benes

The district includes downtown and expands outward to Los Feliz, Highland Park, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, East L.A., El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights and Cypress Park.

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MARIA BENES

VIDEO | 05:14
L.A. school board candidate Maria Brenes

Age: 46
Occupation: Brenes is the founder and director of InnerCity Struggle, a student advocacy and family-services group that operates out of Boyle Heights.

Experience: She has worked especially closely with outgoing board member Monica Garcia to identify and pursue priorities at Eastside schools. This included pushing the district to require all students to graduate qualified for admission to a four-year state college. (The district adopted a less strict version of the policy out of concern that too many students would fail to graduate.) Her two children, in fifth and seventh grades, are enrolled in the district.

Priorities: 1) Put substantially more funding into the district’s highest needs campuses using an equity index developed by advocacy groups outside the district. 2) Increase health-related supports on campuses, such as nurses and mental-health professionals. 3) Lower class sizes, with an equity focus, such as concentrating efforts on schools where the achievement gap is widest or COVID-19 had the greatest impact.

Evaluation of new superintendent: “I appreciate the sense of urgency as it relates to academic recovery. The strategic plan he has laid out is very promising to address academic excellence, community engagement, investing in staff and wellness of all stakeholders in LAUSD. What I think he can go further on is engagement of all stakeholders in soliciting their input and their thoughts and ideas.”

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COVID vaccine mandate: Brenes supports the employee mandate, and also wants students to be vaccinated and to promote that effort, but without a mandate out of concern that it would keep some students out of public school.

On charter schools: Opposes new charters in her area because of declining enrollment, but wants more “in-district options,” including special programs that bus students in from across the district, self-governing schools, schools with a math/science focus and schools with a larger grade span such as K-8. “This will help address enrollment challenges faced by LAUSD.”

Proposed 20% raise for staff: “It has to be considered for the good of our students in our schools. L.A. is becoming so less affordable. That’s a big challenge when it comes to retaining and recruiting staff.”

School police: Her group has been a leader in the coalition to eliminate completely the school police. As a candidate she has talked about listening to students who are “challenging us in a very good way to relook at the old ways of thinking, of archaic, problematic racist ways of thinking.... We have to invest in infrastructure for reimagining school safety, ensuring there is access to restorative justice programs, services, counselors, mental health.”

Takeaway from test scores: “We need to reduce class size; we need to increase interventions; we need to increase access to tutoring. By working together and working with our families, we can meet high academic goals for all of our students, including our highest needs students.”

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Quote: “What I hear from families is a need, a wanting, of LAUSD to be a resource hub to their family and in their community, whether it’s mental health services or related to housing to issues around child care and enrichment after school.”

Website: https://www.mariaforlaschools.com/

ROCIO RIVAS
Rivas declined to be interviewed for this article. The information below is based on earlier interviews, through early May, recent statements and her website.

L.A. school board candidate Rocio Rivas
(Christina Gandolfo)

Age: 49
Occupation: Rivas is a research and policy deputy for school board member Jackie Goldberg.

Experience: She said her work and study of education around the world has underscored the how and why of schooling and its impact on improving the lives of the working class and marginalized. She has a seventh-grader in a district school.

Priorities: 1) Make sure schools with highest-need students get adequate resources and use them wisely. 2) Integrate needed mental health support into schools, especially in the wake of the pandemic. 3) Create a healthier school environment by greening outdoor spaces, eliminating heat islands, addressing air pollution.

Evaluation of new superintendent: No answer.

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COVID vaccine mandate: Rivas has supported district policies, which were hindered, she said, by inconsistent communication. Currently, there is a mandate for employees but not for students.

On charter schools: She views the charter sector as a whole as “going after public schools and changing what public education is,” creating a system that is no longer “education for civil rights and democracy, but for profit and accountability.” Would like to close low-performing charter schools and end the sharing of district-operated campuses with charters, but state law would limit the district’s authority to take that step.

Proposed 20% raise for staff: Rivas hopes to work to find resources for such a raise, while also supporting policies to help teachers, such as assistance with housing and transportation costs and with school supplies.

School police: Rivas generally supports the cuts to date, but is aware of safety concerns from parents and teachers that conflict with the teacher union leadership’s desire to eliminate the police. “We all need to come to the table, the union, the communities. And let’s talk about these issues. There has not been a public conversation.”

Takeaway from test scores: No answer.

Quote: “I have a well-rounded education on what communities need. I feel I have a responsibility to use that on behalf of students and families.”

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Website: https://www.drrivasforschoolboard.com/

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District 6: Kelly Gonez vs. Marvin Rodriguez

The east San Fernando Valley district includes Sylmar, San Fernando, Mission Hills, Pacoima, Arleta, North Hills East, Panorama City, Sun Valley, North Hollywood, Toluca Lake, Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace, Sunland and Tujunga.

MARVIN RODRIGUEZ

VIDEO | 05:57
L.A. school board candidate Marvin Rodriguez

Age: 43

Occupation: Rodriguez is a Spanish teacher at Cleveland High School.

Experience: He has taught for 18 years, starting right after college. Before that, he served as a Marine, with combat duty in Iraq. Rodriguez coaches in a program to train students to run marathons and has two children in district schools.

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Critique of incumbent: Her teaching experience was limited, she needs to operate with more transparency, and she listens more to special interests than to parents.

Priorities: 1) Expand “community schools” to provide wide-ranging services for students and families as well as a meaningful responsive curriculum that incorporates community input. 2) Make early education meaningful for more students, especially in vulnerable communities. 3) Make sure centers for students with disabilities are fully funded to provide the needed support for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

Evaluation of new superintendent: Overall, so far so good, and he’s “saying the right things.” But he needs to listen to the input of teachers, “who are directly involved in making sure our students are successful.” He added that the new practice of bringing in administrators to fill teacher vacancies hasn’t worked so well, because these managers are out of practice and have difficulty connecting with students.

COVID vaccine mandate: He has supported the employee mandate, but would consider relaxing it to bring back needed non-complying teachers who lost their jobs — if they agree to wear a mask on campus. He would oppose a student mandate until required by state or federal officials.

On charter schools: He formerly taught at a charter school and concluded that “charters don’t necessarily have to play by the same rules. Oversight is a little lax, and the working conditions are not the optimal ones ... If we allow charters to come in and siphon some of the resources that our neighborhood schools are hungry for, how are we going to create those strong neighborhood schools?”

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Proposed 20% raise for staff: “If the district shuffles around some of the budget, I’m sure they could find a way to to make sure that their employees are earning dignified wages — especially when we talk about living in the most expensive city in the United States. You have to at least match inflation to let teachers know that you are negotiating in good faith.

School police: ”My vision is police-free campuses. But to achieve that, we have to we deliver for our students the services they need and the options that are going to empower them to make better decisions. Until we do that, there is a role for police officers to work with our students in a role that’s not punitive, that is more of a mentor. They can also make sure that our schools on the outside are staying safe.”

Takeaway on test scores: Since in-person classes resumed, “test scores are going in the right direction... telling us exactly what we knew already: Our students perform better when they have a chance to be with one another, to collaborate, to be at school, to build on those relationships that go far beyond the academic environment.”

Quote: “We talk a lot about academic success and, believe me, that is important, but public education has failed students in providing the other supports they need to address the whole child.”

Website: https://www.marvinrodriguez2022.com/

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KELLY GONEZ

VIDEO | 05:19
L.A. school board candidate Kelly Gonez

Age: 34

Occupation: Gonez is the incumbent school board member and was elected in 2017.

Experience: She has five years of teaching experience and served as an education staffer in the Obama administration. She is the parent of two children, the older has entered a district transitional kindergarten program.

Accomplishments: She cites the district’s response to the pandemic that, she said, was notable for robustness and compassion in providing meals and technology and safe campuses; also, more students taking Advanced Placement courses and enrolling in dual-language programs. She also points to increased access to high-quality programs in the east San Fernando Valley as well as a more urgent effort to “green” campuses by removing asphalt and adding trees and outdoor education and recreation space.

Priorities: 1) COVID recovery must continue by confronting the “rippling impacts” on staff, student learning, mental health, while ensuring equity in all programs. 2) Expand early education to achieve universal preschool. 3) Continue to focus on college and career readiness.

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Evaluation of new superintendent: “I was really pleased by the establishment of a strategic plan for the first time in many years... which really lays the foundation for all of the work that we must undertake. But ultimately, I want to see a lot of improvement in terms of our students’ academic outcomes, socio-emotional supports and responding to the trauma that we’re seeing among our students as well as a stabilization of our district’s finances.”

COVID vaccine mandate: She supports the district policy of mandating the vaccine for staff and supports vaccination for students, while remaining in sync with state policy that has postponed a student mandate.

On charter schools: When charters and traditional schools share a campus, she would like to allow for more flexibility so critical spaces like parent centers or intervention rooms for struggling students would be protected, although state law places limits on such considerations. She does not support new charters in her district or throughout the school system.

Proposed 20% raise for staff: ”I don’t know. I do want to see all of our employees receive a significant raise. That is absolutely merited, by not just their work but also by the need to retain and support our our hard-working employees at a time when it’s really hard to live in Los Angeles.”

School police: ”True school safety really calls for a comprehensive, holistic approach... It’s really about employing a lot of different strategies to ensure the safety of our students and building positive relationships with adults is a primary one as well as the infrastructure of our schools... Given that there are a lot of crises that often occur outside of our school campuses, we do have a need for emergency response personnel and that’s the role that the school police play in their current formation.”

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Takeaway from test scores: “There’s been a real impact of the pandemic on learning, especially for those who were most vulnerable to begin with, in addition to the trauma and the mental health and socio-emotional impacts that we know are impacting them as well, and I think it creates a new level of urgency for really making sure we’re responding to these holistic and pressing needs of our students and school communities, and really employing every strategy possible.”

Quote: “During one of the most challenging times in our history, I have demonstrated the ability to make tough decisions for the betterment of our students and families, especially those who are most vulnerable. And I’ve delivered for my community here in the San Fernando Valley,” including “establishing the first-ever center for enriched studies in the east Valley.

Website: https://www.kellygonez.com/

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Past coverage

Brenes and Rivas offer a milder contrast than in some past fights, but opposing forces want badly to win.

June 9, 2022

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L.A. Times Editorial Board Endorsements

The Times’ editorial page publishes endorsements based on candidate interviews and independent reporting. The editorial board operates independently of the newsroom — reporters covering these races have no say in the endorsements.

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The L.A. Times’ editorial board endorsements for statewide ballot measures, elected offices in Los Angeles city and county, L.A. Unified School District board, L.A. county superior court, statewide offices, the state Legislature and U.S. House and Senate seats.

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How and where to vote

Ballots will be in the mail to all 22 million registered voters in the state no later than Oct. 10. Californians can return ballots by mail, drop them at collection boxes or turn them in at voting centers. They can also cast ballots early at voting centers or wait until Nov. 8 to vote at their neighborhood polling places.

Californians can register to vote or check their status at https://registertovote.ca.gov/.

Here’s how to vote in the California midterm election, how to register, what to do if you didn’t get mail ballot or if you made a mistake on your ballot.

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Follow more election coverage

In the November midterm election, California is one of the battlefields as Democrats and Republicans fight over control of Congress.

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