The May runoff election for two seats on the Los Angeles Unified District school board has resulted in a new majority backed by charter school advocates. In addition to incumbent Monica Garcia, who won re-election in March, the two new board members who won in the May runoff are 28-year-old Kelly Gonez and 31-year-old Nick Melvoin. Both will join the board in July.
As a public service, EdSource is publishing an edited transcript of interviews we conducted with Gonez and Melvoin about their priorities. Despite charter school advocates spending millions of dollars on their behalf through independent expenditure committees, both candidates say they will not be pushing for a significant expansion of charter schools in the district. Below is our interview with Kelly Gonez, who is leaving her position as a 7th-grade science teacher at the Crown Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Los Angeles, to join the Los Angeles Unified board.
EdSource: What do your victory and Nick’s victory foretell on the issue of charter growth in Los Angeles? How do you see your role on the board vis-à-vis charter expansion?
Gonez: I see my first priority being strengthening district schools. I think that’s a really important frame. I know that the issue of charters has often been the predominant issue when it comes to campaigns and politics here in L.A., but for me I think there’s a whole host of other issues that matter a lot. Charter school expansion is not something that I am really interested in doing. I want to help support and improve all of our currently existing schools with a primary focus on traditional district schools. With the district’s budget deficit, what we really need to be prioritizing is increasing enrollment in our district schools.
EdSource: And do you see the board race outcomes as indicative of the charter landscape statewide?
Gonez: I’m not a statewide person so it’s hard for me to speculate about the statewide state of charters. I would say that here in LA there is this question of whether charters should exist. The fact is they do exist. I think my election will hopefully allow us to get beyond that existential question and focus on reality – that there are charter schools. And some are great and some are poor. And help us get into the nuances of how do you effectively oversee those schools. How do you make sure that every charter school is a high-quality, high performing charter? How do you make sure that there is real accountability and real transparency around charters?
EdSource: On the enrollment question, do you subscribe to the view that the growth of charters in Los Angeles has been at the expense of district enrollment?
Gonez: There are many reasons why there is declining enrollment. Part of it is simple demographics. We have a declining birth rate, and with increasing housing prices, families are being pushed out of the city. But I do think that families are sending their kids to charter schools, or if they can afford to, to private schools, or to neighboring districts, because they weren’t satisfied with their neighborhood school. So I don’t think charters are the driving factor of why the district has declining enrollment but I think that they certainly have played a role. The issue is in how do we fix it. I don’t think the way to fix it is to close charter schools that are doing a great job for kids and families. The way we fix it is to invest in and support traditional district schools, so that every neighborhood school is an excellent public school.
EdSource: You’ve talked about the need to have charters and district schools learn from each other. What would a collaborative opportunity look like, where both sides can learn from each other?
Gonez: Superintendent Michelle King held a ‘promising practices’ forum last year where she brought together leaders from independent charter schools, district schools, as well as I think magnet, pilot schools and affiliated charters as well. And it was an opportunity to share best practices across the spectrum and I believe she’s hosting another one this June. I think that’s a great start, but for me, especially because of the hostile tone that I think is circulating around these issues, it’s important to have long-term meaningful collaboration to really build those relationships. And so for me I think about what are ways to have joint professional development, site visits, joint community events, especially looking at geographic clusters of schools. There’s only so much you can dig into at a town hall or forum. But if you build those relationships long-term between school leaders at traditional and charter schools and between the staff on charter and traditional district campuses, then I think you can really dispel the myth about each other’s different schools, and also get into more deeper learning and collaboration.
EdSource: Were you surprised by the financial support you got from the California Charter Schools Association?
Gonez: I was. I followed the previous school board races a little and unfortunately outside money is not a new phenomenon. It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened in this school board race. I was surprised by the magnitude of money on both sides of the race. and I think it’s an unfortunate consequence of the way the school board elections are set up. And I hope that we can look at campaign finance reform and other changes really so that most of the spending and most of the narrative is coming from the candidates’ own campaigns rather than outside campaigns. I think it’s confusing for voters. I also think that money could be better spent on schools and kids and families.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.