Meet the candidates for the District 5 L.A. school board seat
The 10 candidates running to fill a vacancy on the Los Angeles Board of Education all want increased funding for local schools, but they differ strongly on other issues, including the growth of charter schools and the leadership of L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner.
The special election, which takes place Tuesday, will fill the seat left open last July when Ref Rodriguez resigned after pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws.
No candidate claims to be against charter schools, but perspectives vary on these privately operated campuses, which are mostly non-union. Charters compete with district-run schools for students — and their growing numbers in a school system with declining enrollment have been a flashpoint issue. Some candidates favor a moratorium on new charters. The most critical of charters is Jackie Goldberg; the most supportive is Allison Bajracharya.
All the candidates have ties to children in local public schools — in Goldberg’s case, her grandchildren. But the parents of school-age children — Bajracharya, Cynthia Gonzalez, Nestor Enrique Valencia and Heather Repenning — assert this as a particular qualification.
Former chief operations and strategy officer for Camino Nuevo Charter Academy
A Los Feliz resident, Bajracharya has worked in recent years in leadership positions in charter schools or pro-charter organizations. Her children attend a district-run neighborhood elementary school. L.A. Unified, she says, has failed to create “a culture of excellence and high expectations for all students.” She wants the district to move as quickly as possible to require students to earn a C or better in courses required for admission to a four-year state college. She strongly opposed the teachers’ strike but also says it helped galvanize support for better funding for public education.
What she thinks about:
- The state of the district: She says the low number of district students who graduate from college is “outrageous” and says she would give the district a grade of C- at best. But she also says that L.A. Unified is recognizing the need to be more responsive to the community by adding new magnet schools and thinking in a more innovative way about the progression of students from kindergarten through 12th grade. She believes the district makes it far too hard for parents to have input.
- Charter schools: She opposes a moratorium but also doesn’t think the solution for the school system is to “charterize” it.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: Beutner, she says, “came in to make some really tough financial decisions, but I think he has not demonstrated an ability to build trust in the public with parents and teachers and also with the school board.”
Endorsements and funding: Her campaign has raised $229,514, as of the most recent filing date. She also has benefited from outside spending — about $139,000— by the New York-based Students for Education Reform Action Network, which is associated with charter-school backers.
Ana Cubas, 48
Instructor, East L.A. College, teaching citizenship classes
The former senior L.A. City Council aide, who once finished second in a race for the council, also heads a nonprofit that organizes an annual three-day leadership training program for young Latinas. She emphasizes the needs of low-income Latino students: “The fundamental issue is social justice and equity. Until you address needs of Latino students, the school district will continue to have some failures.” She supports higher teacher salaries and better education funding, but believes in holding problem teachers “accountable.”
What she thinks about:
- The state of the district: Lack of budget transparency has contributed to distrust and budget problems, she says. She wants to set up a special budget committee that would enlist outside experts to provide the school board with advice on a regular basis.
- Charter schools: She supports a pause in approving new charters while state law on charters is updated.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: She says Beutner hasn’t successfully provided fiscal oversight. She wants a new superintendent with education experience as well as management skills.
Endorsements and funding: She has raised $62,362. Her website lists endorsements from at least nine local elected officials.
Jackie Goldberg, 74
Chairwoman of the city’s local hiring working group
After establishing herself as a teacher in the Compton school district, Goldberg, who lives in Echo Park, served two terms on the L.A. school board, ending in 1991. She later served on the L.A. City Council and in the state Legislature. In her current job, she oversees efforts to help former inmates and the formerly homeless find city jobs. Goldberg says the district should do much more to raise revenue but also can find ways to make change without more funding, such as by moving more authority to parents, teachers and administrators at schools. She also says that more thoughtful effort is needed for the reform of student discipline policies — which emphasize counseling over punishment — to be successful.
What she thinks about:
- The state of the district: She believes it is reasonably strong “given that it is so underfunded” and that the district’s budget is further challenged by declining enrollment, for which she holds charters substantially responsible. She says more work needs to be done to ensure that all children graduate from school knowing at least two languages.
- Charter schools: She supports a moratorium on new charters and says existing charters need more stringent monitoring — fiscally and educationally — at the state and local level.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: She opposed hiring Beutner: “I’m old-fashioned. I think educators should run school districts, not finance managers.” She also says that he’s been too secretive and did not do a good job managing events leading up to the teachers’ strike. All the same, she says, “I’m not coming on the board to fire him. My goal is to see if we can all work together.”
Endorsements and funding: The teachers union and its parent organizations have poured more than $640,000 into an outside campaign on her behalf. Her own campaign has raised about $200,000. Many other unions and a long list of current and former public officials and activists have endorsed her.
Cynthia Gonzalez, 40
L.A. Unified principal
A principal at the Communications and Technology School in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, Gonzalez wants schools to have more autonomy in how to spend their budgets. She says Board District 5 is a microcosm of the inequity throughout the school system: Students in affluent areas, like the district’s northern portion, attend schools that function better than those in communities with more poverty, like in the district’s southern section. Such solutions as converting schools to magnets are not enough, she says, to address the core issue of what resources are needed on campuses.
What she thinks about:
- The state of the district: The school district needs to better prioritize its spending, she says, and reduce the bureaucracy that makes it hard for schools to use the money allocated to them.
- Charter schools: Gonzalez supports a moratorium on new charters. When she was a principal at Roosevelt High School, she says, she saw the negative effect on campus resources when students began leaving for charters.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: Beutner does not appear to have a strong or inspiring vision for the district, she says, and comes with too much baggage. If elected, she would evaluate his ability to create and execute such a vision, with input from community members. On the school board, she says, she would be “a strong middle,” balancing different points of view.
Endorsements and funding: Gonzalez has raised about $36,000. She has been endorsed by the L.A. Times editorial board and by Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the union that represents district administrators. That union also has endorsed Goldberg.
Graciela Ortiz, 38
LAUSD counselor, Huntington Park councilwoman
Ortiz would focus on developing a consistent discipline policy and increasing safety — not just with school police officers but with mental health professionals and other key staff. Ortiz is a member of the teachers union and went out on strike with her colleagues, but says the gains from the strike were not worth students losing six days of instruction.
What she thinks about:
- The state of the district: Although it’s good that the district is focused on increasing attendance, she says, too many students are entering high school without necessary math and English skills. She says communities in the Southeast — including Huntington Park, where she was raised and now lives — are not kept up to date on projects at their schools.
- Charter schools: If a school is performing well for families, she says, it should be allowed to continue to do so. Community members don’t care about the distinctions between charters and district-run schools, she says. They only care about whether a school is working for them.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: Ortiz did not want to evaluate Beutner or school board members since she has not worked with them: “I am ready to work with every single one of them.”
Endorsements and funding: Ortiz has raised about $130,000 from individual donors. It’s less clear who’s behind the more than $80,000 in spending on her behalf by a group called Building Community Through Education in Support of Graciela Ortiz for School Board 2019. Much of that funding appears to have been collected by political allies in southeast L.A. County. She has been endorsed by L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo, unions representing school police officers and their managers and some council members in the Southeast cities that are part of District 5.
Consultant for the Getty House Foundation; former vice president, L.A. Board of Public Works
Repenning, who lives in Silver Lake, positions herself as a candidate with “relevant local government experience.” She says financial transparency was key at her recent job with the city’s Board of Public Works. Her priorities on the school board would be to identify more funding sources, get more state funding for early education and bring in partners to provide more services to students.
What she thinks about:
- The state of the district: Repenning give good marks to L.A. Unified for providing “innovation and flexibility” for parents by adding more magnet schools and dual-language programs. She wants to increase partnerships with outside agencies to bring in more programs and funding. Like her key political ally, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, she thinks the recent contract with teachers struck a good balance between financial restraint and spending to help schools now: “The strike agreement probably found that middle ground, but certainly there’s more to be done.”
- Charter schools: Repenning opposes an immediate cap on new charter schools, but favors a study of their effects on the district. Given the school system’s declining enrollment, she says, “I think it’s appropriate to have a discussion about how many new schools we should be opening.”
- Beutner and the school board: Beutner has focused more on the district’s finances than on building trust and communicating with families, when in reality he needs to do both, she says. She would evaluate him based on graduation rates and his ability to improve the most underperforming schools.
Endorsements and funding: Her campaign has reported raising about $287,000. Separately, Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents most of the district’s non-teaching employees, has poured nearly $920,000 into getting Repenning elected, more than any other group for any candidate. Garcetti’s endorsement has helped pull in other backers.
Rocio Rivas, 45
A Highland Park resident and a neighborhood council leader, Rivas will appear on the ballot, but she announced this week that she is dropping out of the race and endorsing Goldberg.
Instructor at East L.A. College and L.A. Trade-Technical College, teaching social sciences
A Silver Lake resident, Sanchez has been a neighborhood council leader and was an organizer in the Justice for Janitors union campaign. He wants all district parents to be able to vote in school board elections, even if they are not citizens. He supports raising taxes to increase school funding, and he’d also explore whether the district could benefit by selling off some of its real estate. He offers to serve as a “voice of reason”: “There is this war between charters and the district that gets in way of instruction.”
What he thinks about:
- The state of the district: L.A. Unified, he says, is on the brink of insolvency and students cannot even read their diplomas. He also recognizes that “poverty is a major problem and it has a lot to do with education.”
- Charter schools: The school board’s recent resolution calling for a moratorium is pointless because it is nonbinding, he says. Besides, he says, charter schools should play a role in public education, although they also should be held accountable for their performance: “Parents should have choices. I don’t think charters can replace public schools.”
- Austin Beutner and the school board: Beutner deserves a B+, Sanchez says: “He is attacked for his background. That is a distraction. I think he has great ideas. I want people with ideas. I think he’s doing very well.”
Endorsements and funding: Sanchez has raised nearly $20,000.
David Valdez, 40
Former L.A. County arts commissioner
Valdez is a Silver Lake neighborhood councilman who stepped down from the L.A. County Arts Commission in December to run for this seat. He works at NBC Universal as a training and development manager. He grew up in East L.A. and has family members who are LAUSD teachers. He wants class sizes to decrease beyond what was negotiated in the teachers contract, and wants to work to increase state education spending. Valdez talked more than any other candidate about increasing arts options for students.
What he thinks about:
- The state of the district: He says it is “unacceptable” for California to spend so little on schools compared with other states, and he wants to reverse that trend.
- Charter schools: Valdez supports a moratorium on new charters but thinks the conversation in LAUSD needs to move away from charter schools versus traditional schools, to focus on gaps in opportunity and learning.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: Beutner needs to do a better job connecting with the community, Valdez says, but he would work to build a partnership with the schools chief if elected.
Endorsements and funding: He has raised about $24,000 and spent about $22,000 in support of his campaign.
Councilman, city of Bell
Valencia emphasizes that he grew up in the district he now wants to represent. He says he wants to delve deeper into why schools are not performing well. He also wants more done to increase attendance as a means of increasing revenue: “We cannot be passive about not having a kid in school for two days.”
What he thinks about:
- The state of the district: Valencia gives the district a 7 out of 10. He notes that the graduation rate is improving but says schools need to perform better academically and give students more guidance about life after high school. Valencia says he has doubts about both extremes in the debate over district finances. He’s not sure the district faces insolvency, but he also questions how much money is available for new spending. He wants to send the “right people” to Sacramento to advocate for funding.
- Charter schools: “I’m not for charter schools. I’m not for UTLA,” he says. He would support a moratorium on new charter schools “if necessary.” He wants charter schools to serve their original purpose, which was to try new ideas and bring them back to neighborhood schools.
- Austin Beutner and the school board: Valencia has been critical of Beutner since his hiring, saying he did not have adequate experience, but he thinks the superintendent’s office did a good job of communicating with him as a parent and city councilman during the strike.
Endorsements and funding: Valencia has raised $2,664 and spent $5,286 in support of his campaign.
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