Former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded guilty July 23 to conspiracy and three misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contribution and resigned from the board the same day. Rodriguez, an influential charter school advocate, had previously stepped down from the position of board president last year after less than three months in the role due to allegations of money laundering. He represented LAUSD District 5, an area that encompasses Eagle Rock. The remaining LAUSD board members made unsuccessful efforts to find an interim leader — the pro-charter and pro-public school board members are currently equally represented, but a new board member would change that.
LAUSD has the highest concentration of charter schools in the country, making up 14.6 percent of Los Angeles’ enrollment, according to the California Department of Education. In recent years, many public school parents have switched their children from public schools to charter schools, drawing money from public schools and causing financial disputes. This divide is reflected in the two main parties in the district, the Californian Charter School Association and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), according to Ronald Solórzano, an education professor at Occidental College. The conflict between pro-charter and pro-public schools has made the re-election of Rodriquez’s seat difficult, according to Solórzano, who spoke about the politics in District 5.
“With Rodriguez being on the board, the pro-charter had a majority vote. With him out … whoever is going to replace him will get the balance,” Solórzano said. “There’s politics involved in this whole issue. You know, he [Ref Rodriguez] is pro-charter and the anti-charter folks really went after him, and that includes the union.”
The $15 million board election last year was the most expensive in United States history, according to the LA Times, with charter schools spending almost $9.7 million dollars on their candidates. Investors can earn large tax cuts for contributions to charters in underserved areas due to the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act passed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, according to the Washington Post. Among this year’s benefactors to the California Charter Schools Association was Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, with a donation of $7 million, according to the LA Times.
With profit and politics on the line, Solórzano said that the community’s other needs have been neglected. The charter-school-versus-public-school dispute is only one facet of the district — LAUSD is an area enveloping many underserved neighborhoods with various issues that affect local students, according to the Public School Review.
“There are other issues: low achievement … restorative justice, suspensions, expulsions, testing, so many things that need to be addressed. Pro– and anti-charter really do not address these other issues,” Solórzano said, “It shouldn’t be the only reason you put somebody in the office.”
Rocio Rivas, a current candidate for Rodriguez’ former seat, has worked on both sides of the issue and sees the need for change. She feels that accountability and transparency for school administrators are not top priorities and wants to address that.
“I want to see a democratically run school board that is in the hands of the people and not corporations,” Rivas said. “Billionaires and corporations are pumping money into school boards and the elections. We need an investigation on both sides in order to prevent this increasing fraud.”
This year, two charter schools in District 5 have already closed down. Celerity Rolas in Northeast LA shut down in July due to escalating financial issues, according to the LA Times. PUC iPrep Charter Academy, co-founded by Ref Rodriguez, closed in August.
Ref Rodriguez’s seat has not been filled since his resignation July 2017. Jackie Goldberg, a former member of the school board and the California State Assembly, offered to take the interim position without a campaign. A motion to select Goldberg as a temporary replacement failed at the board’s Aug. 21 meeting. Koreen Cea, a former UTLA representative and current LAUSD teacher, said that she believes that the board kept the spot open deliberately.
“They [the LAUSD school board] have been very intentional in delaying his re-election. They did not allow Jackie Goldberg, or anyone for that matter, to be interim. I think they just want to be able to dictate what happens in District 5,” Cea said. “They know that District 5 is a pretty powerful district, politically and financially. It’s kind of [a] way of disenfranchisement.”
The board is currently at a standstill, with three pro-union representatives and three pro-charter representatives. Suzanne Smith, community activist and member of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, said that she believes the divide has deep implications for the communities in District 5 of LAUSD.
“The charter-public school split is not sustainable in the long run,” Smith said. “The controversy split the board. I think they have become unable to do anything. It reminds me of the split in the country.”
Rivas said that she feels the primary concern should be the students, but the issue has morphed into something much larger and complicated, involving money and politicized interests. The divide between pro-charter and pro-union representatives on the LAUSD board, Solórzano said, makes the election extremely influential in terms of future policy decisions for the city.