Credit: George White/EdSource
The Los Angeles Unified school board meeting in July 2017.

Los Angeles Unified School Board President Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez was charged Wednesday with four felony counts for allegedly providing nearly $25,000 in reimbursements to donors to his successful 2015 campaign.

Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, were charged with a felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which brought the charges. The district attorney also charged Rodriguez with one felony count each of perjury, procuring a false or forged document and offering a false or forged document.

The arraignment for Rodriguez’s plea is scheduled for Oct. 24. In a statement on Wednesday, Rodriguez said the following:

“As the product of an immigrant family, nobody has more respect for the integrity of the American justice system than I do. I have cooperated with authorities and hope these issues will be resolved expeditiously and fairly…Above all, my commitment to the students, teachers, parents and families of Los Angeles remains unwavering.”

If convicted, Rodriguez faces a possible maximum sentence of four years and four months in jail. Melendrez could be sentenced up to three years in jail if convicted.

Rodriguez is co-founder of PUC Schools, a network of charter schools in Los Angeles. He was elected board president in July after school board elections in June gave board members backed by charter school advocates a 4-3 majority.

The charges are based on alleged actions Rodriguez took after he announced his candidacy for school board in November 2014. The indictment said 25 donors, most of them family members and friends, were paid back $24,250 — nearly all of the money they contributed. The donors’ names were listed on a campaign finance report that was allegedly signed by Rodriguez under penalty of perjury and submitted to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

That commission found over a 22-day period in December 2014 that nearly half of the contributions were fraudulent because Rodriguez and Melendrez had allegedly reimbursed them, according to the district attorney’s office. The commission relayed the findings to the district attorney.

If Rodriguez is convicted, his departure from the board could have a major impact on the district’s future policies and directions. L.A. Unified has long-standing tensions related to charter school expansion. There are 224 independently managed charter schools in the district — more than any other district in the nation.

Credit: Ref Rodriguez campaign

Ref Rodriguez

When he was elected board resident on July 5, Rodriguez called for unity.

“We must work together,” he said. “Divisiveness has no place here…unity and dignity are vital.”

Rodriguez and fellow board Monica Garcia last year proposed that the district create a task force to help pave a path from conflict to collaboration between charter schools and district-run schools. The district subsequently assigned the task to a group that included school principals, parents and representatives from the school district, charter schools and United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents teachers in the district.

After adopting most of the advisory group’s proposals, Superintendent Michelle King sent a memo June 30 to the district’s board of education establishing Fall 2017 timelines for launching the initiatives. Among them are plans to help administrators at district-run schools and charters share “promising” educational practices and plans designed to help district-managed schools and charters work more closely together at school sites they share.

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