The Los Angeles Unified School District emerged from January’s weeklong teachers’ strike bruised and divided. On the surface, the areas of dispute were the usual ones: pay, working conditions and staffing levels. But the subtextual issues — the future of charter schools, the depth of the district’s financial problems, a controversial and as-yet unclear plan to reorganize the district into 32 networks and, ultimately, lack of trust in the district’s relatively new superintendent, Austin Beutner — are lasting ones that will require steady leadership and nuanced decision-making by the school board.
The board, however, remains as riven as ever, with three members seen as heavily pro-charter, two as pro-teachers union and one who serves as a swing vote. The seventh seat, which has been vacant since Ref Rodriguez stepped down in July after pleading guilty to criminal charges, is up for grabs in a special election on March 5.
To the great resentment of United Teachers Los Angeles, Rodriguez held tight to his seat despite the pending charges against him long enough to vote for hiring Beutner, whom the union sees as the choice of wealthy philanthropist “school reformers” who want more charter schools. Beutner’s plan to reorganize the district, which he says will bring decision-making out of headquarters and closer to schools, hasn’t been met with enthusiasm so far, in large part because people don’t know much about it. So when parents rose up to support teachers in their strike, Beutner, fairly or not, became a somewhat demonized figure.
Now Rodriguez is gone, and the race for his District 5 seat has drawn 10 candidates. They include educators and parents, community college professors, a longtime aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti and a well-known former City Council member and assemblywoman who previously served on the school board in the 1980s. The oddly shaped district on LAUSD’s eastern border takes in the affluent neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz to the north and more working-class towns such as Huntington Park and Cudahy to the south. About 90% of the students in District 5 are Latino.
Those students deserve a board member who understands the challenges they face and will stand up for their right to qualified teachers and better resources. At the same time, the board needs a collaborative, thoughtful and nondogmatic person who will use insight rather than rhetoric to get the job done.
This is too complicated a moment in the board’s history for someone with no experience to take the job. The new board member is likely to serve as the decisive vote on hot-button issues. He or she should be steeped in knowledge of education generally and LAUSD specifically. Current, on-the-ground understanding of schools and of the day-to-day reality for teachers, parents and students is a big plus, especially because there’s too little of that on the existing board. The new member should play a role in helping Beutner build stronger relationships with teachers and parents, and should advocate strongly for full transparency on district plans. It’s preferable to have a board member who is independent-minded rather than ideologically wedded to the union or to charter school advocates.
No candidate fits all the criteria. But the one who comes closest is Cynthia Gonzalez, the principal of the communications and technology high school at Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South L.A. (That’s a pilot school, which means it has greater independence, like a charter school, but remains an LAUSD school with UTLA teachers.)
With previous experience as an administrator at one of the district’s high-performing magnet schools (and two of her own children in district schools), Gonzalez has seen how much difference it makes for students to have savvy parents who can negotiate the schools bureaucracy and access to resources, both at home and at their schools. Gonzalez also understands that the challenges aren’t spread evenly among schools and that performance metrics don’t take that into account.
Gonzalez, who has been a teacher and principal at L.A. schools for 17 years, points to at least one school that has such a high number of students with severe learning disabilities that it can never hope for a graduation rate of higher than 80%. And she expresses concern that charter schools tout their academic achievements without educating enough of those more challenging students.
She is clearly more aligned with the teachers union than with the charter school movement and would like to see at least a temporary moratorium on opening new charters. (That’s not a decision the school board can make under state law.) But, like Beutner, she is a strong believer in autonomy for individual schools, though she feels certain that can be accomplished without dividing down into 32 networks, if schools operated more like pilot schools. If she makes it to the board, we hope she would support all schools that do well by students with the greatest needs.
One of her roles on the board, Gonzalez said, would be to serve as a bridge between policymakers and reality, helping explain how proposed new initiatives would be received by schools — and whether they would be likely to work.
UTLA has thrown its support behind Jackie Goldberg, a retired teacher, 1980s school-board member, former L.A. City Council member and state legislator. But Goldberg, though smart, knowledgeable and effective, is too combative and too ideological. Garcetti’s favored candidate, longtime aide Heather Repenning, is moderate in her approach, but her lack of experience in education shows; during an interview, she had nothing insightful or original to say about the issues facing L.A. Unified. Both have raised far more money than Gonzalez.