It’s not unusual, in choosing between candidates, to wish you could wrap the best of each into a single person, and that — voilà! — the perfect candidate would materialize. So it is with the two opponents in next month’s special election for Los Angeles Unified school board: Jackie Goldberg, a sharp, passionate, seasoned educator and politician, and Heather Repenning, a thoughtful problem-solver who has served as a long-time aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti.
But you can’t, and a choice is necessary. Our decision, in the end, was based on the dynamics of the current school board and what it needs at this particular moment in history. Viewed that way, Repenning’s independent-minded, consensus-driven style and her willingness to decide each issue on its merits, as well as her perspective as an LAUSD parent, gave her the edge.
We supported neither of the two in the March special election primary to replace Ref Rodriguez in District 5, which encompasses Los Feliz and Silver Lake to the north, and Cudahy and Huntington Park to the south. Our preferred candidate, Cynthia Gonzalez, struck us as a thoughtful on-the-ground school principal with creative ideas, but she wasn’t among the top vote-getters.
In that first-round race, Goldberg came close to winning the seat outright — she attracted almost 50% of the vote, even in a crowded field of candidates. It’s easy to see why. She’s brimming with experience, smarts and humor — and connections. She’s been a teacher and served as a member of the school board, the City Council and the state Assembly, and she knows everyone involved in the world of education in California. To say that her chances of winning the May 14 runoff are high would be an understatement.
Nor would it be a terrible thing if that happened. Goldberg’s institutional memory and her talent for digging to the heart of an issue would be of value to the board.
But here’s what holds us back: Goldberg also is by far the more ideological of the two, strongly allied with United Teachers Los Angeles, which has endorsed and financially supported her candidacy from the start. While she’s too strong-minded to be anyone’s patsy, we fear her loyalties are a bit too fixed and that her votes would tend toward the reflexive.
A board as riven as L.A. Unified’s over such issues as charter schools, teacher retirement benefits, school accountability, the looming budgetary crisis and Supt. Austin Beutner’s emerging plans for some restructuring of the district doesn’t need more polarization or a stronger vote for one side or the other. It needs a move away from the division altogether.
As we have been arguing for years, the school board has become mired in a binary, reform-vs.-union way of thinking that keeps it from working collectively and cooperatively to improve schools for students based on policies that have been proved effective. The endless battling over whether charters will save or destroy the district, whether UTLA is a force for good or evil, and whether Eli Broad is a visionary philanthropist or a billionaire destroyer of schools has created an atmosphere of distrust and made it difficult for board members to think independently on behalf of students. The nearly weeklong teachers’ strike earlier this year brought many of these issues into clear focus.
That’s where Repenning comes in. Granted, she lacks Goldberg’s depth of experience, and she would definitely face a learning curve as she mastered the byzantine complexities of an enormous and troubled school district. But Repenning has her own experience with vast and intransigent public agencies after many years working in city government under Garcetti, especially as vice president of the Los Angeles Bureau of Public Works. Many people she has worked with in the city describe her as a nonconfrontational consensus builder, including on issues like the minimum wage hike and stormwater recycling. That’s a quality sorely lacking on the LAUSD board.
Repenning, like Goldberg, has serious concerns about the fast growth of charter schools in the district. Yet she also understands that many of these publicly financed but privately managed schools have been educational lifesavers for students who otherwise would have been stuck in low-performing, poorly run schools in their neighborhoods. Goldberg, though she says she supports certain charter schools that she sees as having done a good job, takes a flint-eyed view of the overall growth of the charter movement.
On this and many other topics, Repenning strikes us as someone who would evaluate each issue based on its particular merits rather than on a long history of favoring one side or another. It’s almost as if her lack of LAUSD experience could be a strength: She comes at these topics with fresh eyes and few preconceived notions. Those who know her describe her as willing to listen — another valuable trait that is in short supply on the board — as well as to learn about and tackle big issues.
Repenning currently has a child in an L.A. Unified school, and a parent’s perspective is often grounded in day-to-day realities; parents see how policies made at the highest levels play out in the classroom. None of the current board members has a child in the system.