99,000 LAUSD Students Have No Representative On The School Board. Here's Why That Matters

L.A. Unified School Board member Kelly Gonez (right) speaks during a board meeting in this Sep. 19, 2017 file photo. Next to her, the seat belonging to then-board member Ref Rodriguez sits empty. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Ref Rodriguez left an empty seat on the Los Angeles Unified School Board after he pleaded guilty to felony charges and resigned in July. On Tuesday, the six remaining LAUSD board members met to decide how to fill that seat.

Board members voted to call a special election on March 5, with a runoff election likely to follow on May 14. But board members could not agree on whether to appoint an interim representative to serve as a voice for the area Rodriguez represented until the election is over.

Why does that matter? It's worth taking a step back and looking at what the L.A. Unified School Board does, and why its composition is important.

WHAT MAKES THIS SCHOOL BOARD IMPORTANT?

The seven members of the L.A. Unified School Board are ultimately responsible for the education of more than 601,000 children. No other elected school board in the country shoulders such a large burden.

Look at New York City. There, the mayor appoints the entire school board and hires staff to run the district; it's the mayor who's ultimately responsible for education in the city.

But in L.A. Unified — the nation's second-largest district after New York — voters elect a school board to fill this role. School board members hire the superintendent and establish district policies and priorities.

Yes, it's occasionally unclear where the superintendent's day-to-day powers end and the board's purview begins, but the point is this: in LAUSD, board members answer to no one but the voters.

Also, L.A. Unified School Board races have become a political battleground in an ongoing proxy war between charter school interests and teachers unions. Last year, interest groups poured $15 million into LAUSD board elections, making the 2017 campaigns the most expensive school board races in L.A.'s history.

WHAT DOES AN LAUSD BOARD MEMBER ACTUALLY DO?

Board members' most important duty is to hire a superintendent to handle LAUSD's day-to-day operation — and they recently did that. Beyond that, board members watchdog a massive $8.2 billion budget, legislate district policies, open charter schools (and shut them down) and review decisions to hire (or fire) staff.

But LAUSD board members also have less-visible duties. Each of the seven board members represent a geographic area, or "board district." Depending on the district, each board member represents between 60,000 and 107,000 students enrolled in LAUSD-run public schools or in charter schools that LAUSD oversees.

(Side note: you can look up your LAUSD board district by entering your address here.)

Board members' offices often field calls from constituents who are looking for help in solving local problems or in navigating the district bureaucracy. Sometimes, board members get involved.

If you want to get your campus renovation to the front of the line, better call your board member. If you're hoping to start a magnet or dual language program at your kid's school, it can matter whether your board member is on your side. If you're unhappy a charter school is co-locating on your campus, get in touch with your board member.

Because of these constituent pressures, board members often lobby LAUSD staff to ensure schools they represent get their fair share — if not more than their fair share — of district resources. If a board member feels a proposal doesn't sufficiently benefit their board district, they can vote against it.

Los Angeles Unified School Board member Ref Rodriguez attends a meeting on Aug. 22, 2017. (File photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

SO WHO'S REPRESENTING REF RODRIGUEZ'S DISTRICT NOW?

Nobody — at least on the board itself.

Many members of his old staff in the LAUSD Board District 5 office remain on the job. The office's social media accounts have remained active. The District 5 staff members have recently been involved in a series of problem-solving sessions with parents.

Still, there are more than 150 schools in Board District 5, which covers Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and the southeast cities of Vernon, South Gate, Maywood, Bell and Cudahy — and none of these communities currently has a voting voice on the board.

It's up to the remaining L.A. Unified board members to decide how to fill the vacancy Rodriguez left on the board.

WHAT ARE THE BOARD'S OPTIONS FOR FILLING RODRIGUEZ'S SEAT?

The city charter gives board members a few basic options for filling out the remaining two-and-a-half years on Rodriguez's term, according to the L.A. City Attorney, City Clerk and L.A. Unified's top lawyer. Their options are, in short:

1. Call a special election -AND- leave the seat vacant until the results are in.
2. Call a special election -AND- appoint an interim representative to represent Board District 5 until the election results are in.
3. Appoint a new representative to the seat. (The City Attorney and L.A. Unified's top lawyer, David Holmquist, disagree about this option. The City Attorney says the board can't appoint a board member for longer than one year and would need to call a special election anyway. Holmquist says the board could appoint a representative to fill out the entire term.)

WHICH OPTION DID THE BOARD CHOOSE?

Board members voted Tuesday to call a special election. The problem: it takes four months to set up a special election — so the district has missed the window for the November ballot.

The earliest this election could take place is now in mid-December, but a campaign waged during the holidays could depress turnout. So board members agreed to follow a proposal by Mónica García and Nick Melvoin to order a special election on March 5, 2019.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff would follow between the top two finishers in May 14, 2019.

But after Tuesday, it looks less likely that the board will appoint a temporary representative to cover those next six or eight months between now and the vote is still up in the air.

Board member Scott Schmerelson had formally nominated Jackie Goldberg for the interim role. A former teacher, Goldberg held the same seat on the LAUSD board in the 1980s. She was later the first openly lesbian member of the L.A. City Council. She went on to represent the area in the California Assembly.

State Assembly Member Jackie Goldberg (left) holds up a signed copy of AB 205, the measure granting same-sex domestic partners nearly all rights of married couples, with California Gov. Gray Davis shortly after he signed the bill into law on Sept. 19, 2003. (File photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But Goldberg has been critical of the current board, delivering particularly sharp criticism of the decision to hire Austin Beutner as superintendent. She was known as a consensus-builder while in office and the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles has endorsed her bid for the job. Still, Goldberg's outspokenness probably doesn't help her chances.

As an alternative, board member Nick Melvoin floated another idea late Monday: open up the nominating process to the public.

Under Melvoin's proposal, anyone could submit a nomination to the board by Tues., Aug. 28. Nominees would then submit formal applications. Finally, the six current board members would choose from among these nominees to seat an "interim, appointed, voting member of the board" until the special election determines who completes the term.

But four of the six members of a politically divided board would have to agree — and the board's swing vote, Richard Vladovic, opposed both plans. His votes were decisive in rejecting both Goldberg's nomination and Melvoin's plan.

Vladovic said he opposes appointing a temporary representative on principle; he feels the choice belongs to the voters.

It's possible the board could revisit its decisions Tuesday; they faced no deadline to appoint a temporary representative.

But if board members don't change their minds, Ref Rodriguez's old seat could remain unfilled until after next May's runoff — meaning 99,000 children would be without a voice on the school board for almost an entire school year.

UPDATED: This post was updated at 9:05 p.m. on Tues., Aug. 21, to reflect the results of the LAUSD board's vote.


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