Reality has finally fulfilled the predictions that have swirled for months: On Monday, Los Angeles Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate campaign finance laws during his 2015 election campaign. He then resigned his position.
Rodriguez’s misdeeds — which included characterizing donations as coming from supporters when the money was in fact coming from him — made a mockery of the laws governing elections. And he didn’t take the ethical high road after the charges were filed nearly a year ago. Of course, he was under no legal obligation to explain himself while the charges remained unproven, or to refrain from key votes while a cloud hung over his office, or to resign while the charges against him colored the school board’s dealings. But the public, especially the voters, deserved better.
Sadly, his actions have shown how little he considered what he owed the public.
Rodriguez was part of a “reform” faction favoring a more aggressive push into charter schools. With him on the board, this faction held a one-vote majority over members that were more skeptical of charters and testing-based reforms. The ink on Rodriguez’s resignation letter was barely dry before two of his allies, Monica Garcia and Nick Melvoin, issued a statement saying that they wanted the board to replace Rodriguez with a temporary appointed board member, and then hold a special election.
When the late, longtime board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte — who was perhaps the staunchest ally of the teachers union at the time — died five years ago, the board voted not to appoint a replacement, either temporary or permanent, and instead left the seat open until a special election could be held. It was the right decision at the time — former principal George McKenna, a popular figure in the community, was elected in her place — and it’s the right thing to do now.
True representation is more important than expediency.
Garcia and Melvoin point out correctly that until an election could be held, the voters of District 5 would be without a voting representative on the school board. It’s an oddly shaped district in the eastern portion of L.A. Unified, two bulges connected by a skinny neck, that takes in Silver Lake, Los Feliz, South Gate and Vernon, among other areas.
On the other hand, by having a board member who broke the law to gain office, Rodriguez’s district already lacked legitimate representation.
In any case, in order for voters to be truly represented on the board, they need someone who advances their desires and interests. The residents of Rodriguez’s district didn’t vote for any of the other board members, who may or may not seem to have the best interests of Rodriguez’s district at heart.
The board would actually worsen the voter-representation situation if it named a temporary replacement for Rodriguez to fill in until a special election. That fill-in would have an unquestionable and unfair edge as the incumbent once an election was held. District 5 voters already have been victimized by election shenanigans that slanted a candidate’s chances; the last thing L.A. Unified should do is create another unbalanced campaign.
Voters in District 5 might be so put off that they decide they want nothing to do with pro-reform board members, though it would be a shame for Rodriguez’s misdeeds to taint everyone who shares his educational philosophy. That was a risk he took. Alternatively, voters might like the direction the district is headed in now and vote to maintain a reform majority. That should be their choice to make.
In a scenario eerily similar to that of five years ago, when LaMotte died, Rodriguez’s departure leaves the school board in a murky situation, with three members who are clearly seen as pro-reform and three on the other side. Although the district’s new superintendent, Austin Beutner, was chosen by a 5-2 majority, giving him some measure of security, the newly even split on the board could be unnerving to the administration, and some initiatives might be placed on hold if they can’t win majority approval.
That’s potentially frustrating, but it doesn’t change the bottom line. True representation is more important than expediency. The voters of District 5 deserve a democratically chosen representative, without any board-chosen favorites given a head start. The board would be making a big mistake if it fuels the voter mistrust that Rodriguez already has created.
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