A crowd will face off for Ref Rodriguez’s former L.A. school board seat

At least 11 candidates will vie in a March special election to fill Ref Rodriguez's seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education.
At least 11 candidates will vie in a March special election to fill Ref Rodriguez’s seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The person who wins the open Los Angeles school board seat in a March special election will serve less than two years and enter the fray during a period of budget strain and labor unrest.

The campaign might overlap with a teachers strike.

Even so, at least 11 candidates have stepped up, gathering the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. They are vying to represent the oddly shaped District 5 of Los Angeles Unified, which covers some neighborhoods north of downtown L.A. as well as the cities of southeast Los Angeles County. The seat opened up in July, when Ref Rodriguez resigned after pleading guilty to one felony and three misdemeanors for campaign-fundraising violations.

The seven-member Board of Education is closely split on key issues, including how to interact with privately operated charter schools, which compete with L.A. Unified for students.


In recent years, L.A. school board races have been marked by record spending. Charter school supporters have spent the most, followed by the teachers union.

It remains to be seen which of the candidates will win major financial support.

The leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles seems to be coalescing behind Jackie Goldberg, a longtime teacher who previously served on the school board and also was a member of the L.A. City Council and the state Assembly.

The union’s political action committee has voted overwhelmingly to back Goldberg, although there was support for Graciela Ortiz, a counselor at Marquez High School in Huntington Park. Ortiz is active in the union and is on the Huntington Park City Council. That city is part of District 5.

“It’s hard to argue against Jackie,” said Gregg Solkovits, a former union vice president who’s on the political action committee. “She’s always been there for UTLA. And she’s one of the most fabulous teachers I’ve ever seen.”

The union’s ultimate endorsement decision will be made by its House of Representatives.

The charter camp so far is keeping its strategy under wraps, though one potential favorite is Allison Greenwood Bajracharya, who is chief operations and strategy officer for the Camino Nuevo charter school organization.

Other educators on the ballot are Cynthia Gonzalez, a principal at an L.A. Unified High School south of downtown, and Salvador “Chamba” Sanchez, a community college instructor. Ana Cubas is an adjunct professor at East L.A. College but is better known as a former top L.A. City Council aide who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2013.


Eduardo Cisneros works as a director at the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials to promote “a full, fair and accurate census in 2020,” he said in his candidate filing.

Heather Repenning recently resigned as an L.A. Public Works commissioner to run for office. She has the endorsement of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

David Valdez is an L.A. County arts commissioner, “providing guidance and direction to county arts funding for programs in civic art, arts education, and educational grants,” he said in his filing.

Nestor Enrique Valencia is an elected Bell City Council member. Rocio Rivas is a community activist and neighborhood council leader who led demonstrations calling for Rodriguez to resign.

Several of the candidates are parents of school-age children.

A total of 17 candidates had declared their intention to run, but some did not take the next step: turning in petitions with the required number of signatures from registered voters in District 5. Among them was former board member Bennett Kayser, who has endorsed Goldberg.

The city has to confirm that each candidate has enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. The deadline for filing signatures was Wednesday. At the end of business on Thursday, the city still was checking the signatures of two additional candidates: Justine Gonzalez and Erika Alvarez.


If no candidate wins a majority on March 5, a May runoff will be held between the two who receive the most votes in the first round.

Before his resignation, Rodriguez was part of the board’s first majority elected with major support from charter backers. His vote was crucial in shaping policies more friendly to charter schools and to the selection of Supt. Austin Beutner, who took office in May.

Twitter: @howardblume