This LAUSD Board Seat Will Stay Empty Until Next Spring. Who Looks Out For The Schools Until Then?

Ref Rodriguez, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, listens during a board meeting on June 5, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/LAist)

Voters in northeast Los Angeles and in the southeast cities will head to the polls next spring for a special election to replace controversial former L.A. Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez, who left an empty seat on the board after his resignation last month.

And it looks increasingly likely those voters be without a voice on the LAUSD school board until that election is over.

The LAUSD board voted 5-1 on Tuesday to call a special election on March 5, 2019 to elect a representative to fill out the remainder of Rodriguez's term, which runs through December 2020. A runoff election between the top two finishers in that election will likely follow two months later, on May 14.

WHERE THE DISAGREEMENTS BEGIN

Board members could not agree, however, whether to appoint someone to represent Rodriguez's former seat on an interim basis while that election plays out over the next six to eight months.

An overflow crowd of parents and community members streamed into the board room for public comment, most of them urging a temporary appointment. But they — and board members — were not on the same page about how that appointment should be handled.

Board members Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna voted in favor of appointing Jackie Goldberg as interim. Goldberg represented the area on the LAUSD board from 1983 to 1991 and went on to serve on the L.A. City Council and in the California Assembly.

But board members Nick Melvoin, Mónica García and Kelly Gonez voted against appointing Goldberg in favor of a different plan: solicit nominations from the public, vet the names and choose an interim board member from among the submitted names by mid-September.

The board's swing vote, Richard Vladovic, voted "no" on both plans, saying he opposes appointments to the school board on principle.

"I want the people to decide who sits next to me and who votes," Vladovic said. He added later: "Doggone it, I'm not going to appoint anybody. I believe in democracy. That's it."

WHO CARES IF THAT SEAT IS EMPTY?

LAUSD Board District 5 begins in Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park, curves through Highland Park and Eagle Rock, then slices down through a sliver of El Sereno into the southeast cities of Vernon, Huntington Park and South Gate.

Rodriguez left the seat unrepresented after he pleaded guilty to political money laundering charges and resigned in July.

Vladovic said he felt other board members can look out for the interests of Board District 5 schools — and that LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner remains ultimately responsible for their performance. "Nothing's going to happen," Vladovic said, "that is that dramatic in the next six months."

Many public commenters who gathered at the district's downtown headquarters Tuesday disagreed.

Nadia Diaz Funn, head of the advocacy organization Alliance for a Better Community, contended that Board District 5 cannot go as long as nine months without a representative. During that period, she said the board may make decisions that will "impact the ability of the district to remain solvent over time ... decisions that must take into account the diverse and vibrant communities of that district."

A LATINO VOICE FOR A 'LATINO SEAT'?

Race was an undercurrent in Tuesday's public comments. More than 88 percent of the students in Board District 5 schools are Latino, and parents appeared divided over whether it was appropriate for Goldberg, a white woman, to represent the district.

"It is important," said parent Rosa Andresen, "that the board member representing us be totally familiar with our communities and be able to communicate with our families in Spanish."

"The [district] was specifically drawn for maximum Latino representation," added Bell parent Raquel Toscano, who wore a shirt from the advocacy group called Speak Up. "Do you care about my civil rights?"

For her part, Goldberg came bearing a letter of endorsement from civil rights leader Dolores Huerta. She also has ties to southeast L.A. County, having worked at Centennial and Dominguez high schools in Compton.

Other commenters said Goldberg's race was not an issue.

"Some lady here was saying we need Latino representation— no," said Ruth Perez: "We had a Latino on the seat and he didn't do anything for anybody. [Ref Rodriguez] won the election with cheating."

WILL SHE RUN ANYWAYS?

But Goldberg's race was not the only issue. She has been critical of the current board at times and was especially vocal in her opposition to hiring Beutner as superintendent. During one May meeting, Goldberg thundered that the current board was "bought and paid-for" by charter school interests.

Still, Goldberg lamented that her nomination was being equated to another volley in the ongoing political battle between charter school interests and teachers unions.

"People can talk themselves into believing this is about charters, and it's not," Goldberg, 73, said in an interview. "If that what motivated me, then I'd run in 2020. Then I'd be oppositional."

Goldberg had promised that if she were appointed as interim board member, she would not run.

However, in her interview, Goldberg left open the possibility of running in the special election if the board voted against appointing her.

If she were to run, Goldberg would join a growing field of candidates for the special election, which already includes Huntington Park Mayor Graciela Ortiz, Bell City Council member Nestor Valencia and former Cerritos College trustee John Paul Drayer. Multiple media outlets L.A. Board of Public Works vice president Heather Repenning is considering a run, as is Highland Park parent Rocio Rivas.


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