Newly elected Los Angeles Unified school board president Ref Rodriguez says his goals include bridging the divide between charter-backed and union-backed members.
As the co-founder of PUC Schools, a network of charter schools in Los Angeles, Rodriguez brings a unique perspective to a board that is now controlled by candidates elected with the backing of charter advocates.
As its first order of business on Thursday, that new board elected Rodriguez by a 4-3 vote with all of the charter backed members voting in favor.
“We must work together,” he said. “Divisiveness has no place here…unity and dignity are vital.”
In a recent interview with EdSource, Rodriguez said he expects charter schools will be able to share their best practices to help district schools.
It’s a view supported by the other three board members whose campaigns attracted financial support from charter supporters.
“We have a lot of work to make sure that the schools that are operated by L.A. Unified are quality and I believe that Kelly (Gonez) and Nick (Melvoin) and the rest of the board members got to roll up our sleeves and move in and make sure that is happening. And in fact, the part that the charters play in that is that they have some best practices that we can learn from in order to be able to uplift our struggling schools.”
Asked whether the new majority will lead to more charter approvals, Rodriguez said: “Expansion isn’t the only way to get excellence….This is not about one versus the other.”
He said focusing on the “zero-sum game” is “actually making things worse rather than trying to really tackle the issues that are right in front of us right here right now. Kids are not achieving at the level that they should be.”
Rodriguez succeeds Steve Zimmer, who was serving as board president when he lost a May re-election bid to Nick Melvoin, who was backed by wealthy philanthropists and others who support charters. Another newcomer — Gonez — also won a seat with the support of charter backers, giving those supporters a 4-3 majority on the board. Gonez and Melvoin were sworn in Thursday morning and they attended their first board meeting in the afternoon.
At that meeting, board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson voted for Richard Vladovic for president. Vladovic, elected to the board in 2007, is a former Los Angeles Unified principal.
Teachers unions and pro-charter supporters have spent millions of dollars in recent years in bids to control the school board. About 16 percent of students in the district attend charters. Los Angeles Unified has 279 charter schools — more than any other district in the nation. Of those, 54 are district-managed affiliated charters. The rest are run by independent boards.
Rodriguez was elected in 2015, ousting union-backed Bennett Kayser. The new president is expected to be the face of a board that will serve for the next three and a half years, the longest period of time any Los Angeles school board group has served. The terms will be longer because Los Angeles voters approved a charter amendment that aligns a future board vote with city-wide elections.