This week the school board of the nation’s second largest school district voted 4-3 to elect Ref Rodriguez, a former charter school co-founder as its new president. Rodriguez will lead the seven-member board overseeing the Los Angeles Unified School District as it recovers from a bruising set of elections in 2017 that saw $17 million spent largely by charter-school backers and teachers unions — the most in the district’s history.
Rodriguez joins three other board members who were elected this year and attracted campaign funds from charter backers. Rodriguez was elected in 2015.
His election as board president signals a potential ideological split on the the board, as the three members who opposed him backed Richard Vladovic, a former district principal and board president. But while Vladovic has been viewed as a moderate on charter expansion in the district, his most recent campaign for the board in 2015 also enjoyed financial backing from pro-charter groups. The two other members voting against Rodriguez — Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna — have previously received support from teachers unions and other sources.
Last month EdSource interviewed Rodriguez and the three board members who were elected this year to gain a clearer picture of the priorities of the new charter-backed majority on the board. Read interviews with the two newly elected board members Nick Melvoin here, and with Kelly Gonez here.
EdSource: Everyone is wondering whether we should anticipate more charter schools in Los Angeles. What do you think?
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 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.
Expansion isn’t the only way to get excellence. …This is not about one versus the other. It’s not zero-sum. And with everybody playing into that zero-sum game, we’re 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. … And then also that we have some structural, fiscal issues that are going to play out three years from now in terms of an operating deficit that won’t allow us to offer the quality programs in the district.
EdSource: Will the the huge sums that the California Charter Schools Association poured into this and prior races put pressure on board members to approve more charters?
Rodriguez: No it should not. … We are responsible to the public and not to any special interest group, no matter how much (money) they put into or against our elections. That doesn’t mean these interest groups don’t want to push their agenda on us, but the truth of the matter is our responsibility is to make sure we have a thriving public education system. Charters are not the only part of this ecosystem that we have here. For us to continue to harp on that one issue is a disservice to the public. Eighty-four percent of our kids are still in LAUSD schools.
We have to create a better way of working together. We have to focus on the struggling schools, we’ve got to close down the charter schools that are not working … The fighting between charters and not-charters is a distraction, it’s keeping us away from the really hard things of getting this district under control fiscally, of making sure every kid reads, writes and computes at grade level, that our kids are graduating college-ready, and career-ready as well.
EdSource: With the election of new board members Kelly Gonez and Nick Melvoin, what — if anything — changes about how the board will assess and approve petitions for charters?
Rodriguez: So I think that Nick and Kelly, as like myself, are very interested in accountability and transparency. We want to make sure we’re holding all charters accountable to the same bar, including new ones, but also in renewing them. And then on transparency, that we are transparent with our charter partners, as well as the public, that the accountability process is fair and adequate; that they understand why we moved in a certain way, meaning that when a decision gets made — whether it’s an approval or denial — that it makes sense to the public because we have a clear bar and metrics. As opposed to maybe what seems to have happened in the past which is that it seemed to be very subjective, with one charter by the other. So depending on the charter school, depending on the organization’s history, depending on the board district it was located in, there may have been a little bit of confusion on the public’s part about why some schools got renewed or approved while others were not.
EdSource: Some Los Angeles charter leaders criticized the board for relying on financial audits to slow down or invalidate charter approvals — even for operators that have shown academic gains. How do you respond to that?
Rodriguez: We want to make sure that we are holding charters accountable for all aspects of operating a public school which is not only academic but also organizational and fiscal. That being said I also want to make sure that we’re being fair and that we’re not getting into the weeds in things that do not pertain to our level of governance.
EdSource: Do you subscribe to the view that charters in part or in whole are responsible for LAUSD‘s impending fiscal shortfall (projected to be more than $440 million in 2019-20)?
Rodriguez: No I don’t. I think that it’s much more complex than that. We lose students to charters. It does impact the district’s ability to do things but that’s not the only thing that’s impacted our losing students. Birthrates are low. The middle class is not engaged in public education; those that can afford private education decide to send their kids to private schools, particularly in the middle years and in high school. So it’s a contributing factor but it’s not the only factor. And by making the narrative, by being focused on that thing, it’s not actually helping us settle the long-term issues. So we have to kind of look at this in a much more nuanced way and much more complex way. … We have to bring the public along as well as well.
EdSource: How does the board plan to recover enrollment? And if not recover enrollment, cut costs?
Rodriguez: I believe that the district needs to have a campaign about Los Angeles. So I would prefer to see something to the effect of ‘We are not the L.A. Unified of yesterday.’ That we are different, it’s a different day. We have great performing schools, in fact here’s what really bothers me a lot about the charter-district conversation. We have more high-quality schools in L.A. than there are charters, period. But that hasn’t been part of the narrative.
EdSource: Is there a marketing budget along the lines of what you‘re calling for?
Rodriguez: So there isn’t one now. We do have a small communications office, but we’re Los Angeles. We have the greatest advertising agencies in the world here. We need people to come in and help us. We’ll need to set aside some resources but also there are important opportunities for folks on the outside to work with us and help us. We have the greatest natural resource in our region, in our schools, every single day: We prepare the workforce and we prepare citizens.
EdSource: And right now that‘s not happening?
Rodriguez: That is not happening. Absolutely not.
EdSource: Critics say LAUSD is not forthright in its inventory of available property for charters to lease. Do you think LAUSD could do a better job of leasing its unused property to charters?
Rodriguez: A year ago [last] month we passed a resolution for Proposition 39 (a 2000 state measure approved by voters that calls on districts to share available space with charters) to try to ensure that our practices both were were congruent with the law but also transparent with the public. And so there was a yearlong task force and groups that met. It included charters, union representatives, public non-profits, NGOs. The superintendent now has the recommendations from this task force and ideally should be bringing them to the board in August or in the fall…The problem with Proposition 39 right now is that the regulations are not very clear from the state. For example, there are schools that when there is a co-location they do lose a science lab, for example, they might lose a parents’ center, or they might lose the space that they use for physical therapy for kids. So you can imagine [what] the host school and the community are thinking. … So I get that and am empathetic to it. This shouldn’t be a win-lose. Right. If there is room and there is space, we should make the marriages work.
EdSource: And secondly, could leasing this property to for-profit entities actually be a revenue model for LAUSD?
Rodriguez: We’ve been looking at it. It is something we want to look more into. Based on the law, Proposition 39, we cannot charge charter schools for that space other than shared costs of what it costs us to maintain the property, as well as a very small pro-rata share. So sharing the space with charter schools, the law requires it, but it’s not a revenue generating model for the district.