After years of difficulty and struggle, the Los Angeles Unified School District appears to be improving a bit. Many of its schools look and feel like calmer places; discipline seems to be less of an issue. Staffers interact more with students. Individual campuses have more control over how they spend money, which enables them to direct dollars to their priorities. During the past couple of years, challenged by the growth of charter schools, the district has begun planning more magnet and pilot schools to attract students.
And yet the school district still is flailing. It faces serious budget shortfalls in future years, something its chief financial officer warned the school board about repeatedly before she resigned last month to take a job in the Bay Area. The board hasn't confronted this in part because it's going to involve uncomfortable changes to union contracts, especially to lifetime health benefits.
The recently revamped state standards tests are still quite new so it's hard to judge the results thoroughly, but so far, the district's scores look bad, with only 29% of students meeting the annual standards in math. Standardized test scores aren't everything, but numbers this low indicate a serious problem.
Meanwhile, the district has stuck with its wrongheaded decision to require that all students pass a full college-prep curriculum in order to graduate, even though it had to resort to questionable online makeup courses last year when about half of seniors were in serious danger of not graduating. Where was the school board during the years leading up to this fiasco?
Against this troubling backdrop come the races for three seats on the L.A. Unified school board. Monica Garcia and board President Steve Zimmer, the two longest-sitting members, are running for reelection in Districts 2 and 4, respectively. The third seat, in District 6, is open, as Monica Ratliff is leaving the board to run for Los Angeles City Council. Because of a one-time change in election schedules, the winning board members will sit for five and a half years instead of the usual four. In races where no candidate wins a majority of votes on March 7, runoff elections will be held May 16. Here are The Times' endorsements
District 2: Lisa Alva
Alva, an English teacher at Bravo Medical Magnet School, espouses an interesting mix of beliefs, including some that align with the school reform movement and others more in line with the positions of the teachers union. For instance, even though seniority protections work for her personal benefit, she feels they too often come at the expense of students, which puts her on the side of the reformers. But she also worries, rightly, that oversight of charter schools hasn't been strict enough, especially when it comes to admitting students with serious learning disabilities, who cost considerably more to educate. She has taught for years in District 2, which encompasses downtown and East Los Angeles and some surrounding neighborhoods.
Alva comes across as the fresh voice needed on the school board.
The incumbent, Monica Garcia, has been on the board longer than any other member — since 2006 — and if she wins this, her final election before term limits kick in, she will log more than 16 years in that seat. That's too long; she lacks a record of accomplishment to merit such tenure. To her credit, Garcia is a committed, hardworking board member with a real connection to the community she serves, and her early, divisive style has given way to better collaboration. But she has been too willing to push for approval of charter schools over the recommendations of the school district's charter-oversight staff, and she's been a major force supporting the college-prep graduation requirement without doing anything to put the district on track to meet it.
Of all of the candidates interviewed by the editorial board for the school board election, Garcia was the only one who would not categorically state that she opposed private-school vouchers, which are being pushed by the Trump administration. That's a serious concern.
Alva has her own weaknesses to work on; she sometimes makes sweeping statements without having the specifics to back them up. If she wins, she'll have to do better.
District 4: Nick Melvoin
Melvoin, who has worked for various school-reform groups and is backed by charter-school advocates, is the strongest candidate running against Zimmer, who has been on the board since 2009 and is its current president. District 4 covers Westside and western San Fernando Valley.
But the choice is not as simple as reform vs. union. Zimmer decries the growth of charters, but to his credit, he has voted for many of them, angering many of his traditional supporters. He has expressed more concern than other board members about the questionable shortcuts used to pump up the plummeting graduation rate.
If all were well with the district financially, Zimmer might be the stronger candidate. But he has been unwilling to confront serious financial problems head-on, and at this point, the board needs members who will. "Let's wait and see" is not a financial plan. Instead, he has lavished attention on such side issues as where the district sources its chicken nuggets.
Melvoin is right when he says board members try too hard to get along instead of trying to get things done. He also is among the few to talk about the importance of creating a more engaging curriculum to improve achievement, and he proposes appealing to the city's many arts organizations to bring arts instruction back to schools.
But Melvoin has his own weaknesses, especially a tendency to see matters in simplistic terms. He needs to remember that running a big school district is complicated and requires evidence as much as conviction.
District 6: Kelly Gonez
Among a pack of a half-dozen candidates, Gonez stands out as the one to replace Monica Ratliff in the district covering the eastern San Fernando Valley. A charter-school math and science teacher who also has worked for the U.S. Department of Education on matters concerning vulnerable students, she is well-versed in both classroom realities and big-picture policies.
Gonez correctly identifies key priorities for the school district: tackling the budget; building a strong cadre of magnet and other schools that keep families in the district, without demonizing charter schools; and lobbying heavily for proper funding for special education students.
She brings nuance to her positions: Tying students' scores on standardized tests to teacher evaluations is the wrong policy, she rightly says, because there's no evidence that it improves instruction or achievement. Raising graduation rates with last-minute cram courses degrades the value of a diploma.
In addition to being a strong new voice in her own right, Gonez would be good for the board as a whole. She's a collaborative presence who might help cut through some of the endless debate with calm, informed reason.