After a rocky start to 2019, when schools closed briefly for a contentious teachers’ strike, the Los Angeles Unified school board has been in a fairly calm state. Supt. Austin Beutner, still relatively new in his job, has held on to enough support on the board that his position appears secure for the moment.
The board itself remains divided. Three members, all of them incumbents up for reelection, tend to support teachers union priorities, and three others sympathize with the charter school and school accountability movements. A seventh member, board Chairman Richard Vladovic, has often been the deciding vote. The balance hasn’t worked out badly; the difficulty of getting motions passed makes it hard for any really ditzy ideas — remember the district’s iPad scandal? — to be adopted.
In the March 3 election, four school board seats are in contention. In two cases, incumbents are being challenged; in one case the incumbent has no opponent. Only one seat — the one being vacated by Vladovic, who is termed out — is completely up for grabs.
Ideally, we’d like to see candidates who would steer the board away from contention and divisiveness while having fresh ideas about how to improve education and address the district’s looming financial issues. They would be independent thinkers who vote on the merits of each issue rather than hewing rigidly to a pro-union or pro-charter school ideology. Unfortunately, such candidates are rare these days.
So this year, the incumbents, flawed though some of them may be, are the best candidates and should be returned to their seats. And in the race to replace Vladovic, a creative, articulate newcomer named Silke Bradford is by far the strongest contender.
District 1: George McKenna
McKenna, the incumbent, is running unopposed in District 1, which encompasses South Los Angeles and sections of West Los Angeles, after several potential candidates were unable to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot.
McKenna draws on his history as a reform-oriented principal to inform his decisions, rather than hewing to any strict ideology. He has good ideas for improving education, especially through better teacher-training programs.
Where he has fallen short, though, is in translating ideas into action. He has not introduced resolutions to revamp or even study the district’s training programs. His tenure on the board began five years ago; he hasn’t lacked opportunity. Since he has no opponent, his reelection is assured, but McKenna should be giving serious thought to doing more than just expressing opinions and casting votes, but to leaving a legacy of action.
District 3: Scott Schmerelson
Schmerelson, an incumbent who is strongly allied with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has been the most vocally hostile to Beutner and to the growth of charter schools in the district. Yet he is not so rigid in practice, and, to his credit, has actually voted to approve many charters.
Schmerelson shows a dismaying tendency to think narrowly about his own district, which covers the West San Fernando Valley, rather than the students of L.A. Unified as a whole. Asked why there were so few magnet schools in South Los Angeles and other areas of the district where the need is high, he replied that it was up to individual board members to ask for these programs in their district.
Not quite. While board members have a particular obligation to their own districts, it is their responsibility to consider the fair allocation of resources to all students.
But Schmerelson is a stronger candidate than either of his challengers.
Elizabeth Bartels-Badger, a parent who runs a nonprofit organization that aims to bridge gaps between schools and communities of color, was unable to articulate a clear vision. Marilyn Koziatek, a parent and community outreach manager for Granada Hills Charter School, is well informed, but her main goal is to extend practices that have worked at Granada Hills to schools districtwide. It’s a common but mistaken notion that what works at one school, and a charter school at that, will work at most schools.
District 5: Jackie Goldberg
Goldberg — a former teacher who’d previously served on the board, the L.A. City Council and the state Assembly — did not win our endorsement in her 2019 bid for this seat, which encompasses Los Feliz and Silver Lake to the north, and Cudahy and Huntington Park to the south. But with the strong financial and political support of UTLA, she won hands down. And you know what? She’s doing a very good job.
Goldberg wasted no time in figuring out areas where she might make a positive difference in the lives of L.A. Unified students. She has successfully pushed for ways to make district finances more transparent, and she has forged a relationship with Beutner, not a natural ally, to work together on such innovations as using pool teachers — those who do not have active assignments at a school but who remain employees — as second classroom teachers in high-need classes and reducing student-teacher ratios. Her intelligence and energy are obvious to anyone who sits in a room with her.
Her opponent, education consultant Christina Martinez Duran, can’t match Goldberg at articulating a vision for schools or in expertise and leadership.
District 7: Silke Bradford
Five candidates are running to represent Vladovic’s district, which runs from South Los Angeles to San Pedro. The clear standout is Silke Bradford, who has experience as a teacher, assistant principal and principal in South L.A. and Compton. She’s worked in both charter and district-run schools and is currently the charter school “authorizer” in the Compton Unified School District, where she has advocated for both approving and rejecting charters’ applications.
Far from being entrenched in a pro-charter or pro-union mind-set, Bradford instead brims with smart, well-articulated ideas for all students. She was a major force in the passage of a California law that requires charter schools to provide free lunches to their low-income students.
Bradford is not tied to old assumptions, but thinks in fresh ways. Considering the teacher contract that calls for a full-time nurse at every middle and high school, for example, she wondered why the district would put the same amount of staffing in schools that might have very different needs. Good question!
One of her most formidable opponents is Mike Lansing, who is generally viewed as the most pro-charter among the candidates. Lansing, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor, sat on the school board from 1999 to 2007. He was among the most thoughtful and rational of the board members during his time there. But he is short on fresh ideas for the district and lacks Bradford’s energy, recent educational experience and creative thinking.
Bradford is not expected to win the endorsement of either charter supporters or UTLA, which will make it difficult for her to win office — but is also a very good reason to vote for her. A fresh, independent voice is exactly what the board needs.