LOS ANGELES — Two new members of the Los Angeles school board who were heavily backed by charter-school proponents were sworn in July 6, potentially signaling a major policy shift in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Teacher/attorney Nick Melvoin defeated board President Steve Zimmer in the May runoff election to win the District 4 seat, while Kelly Gonez defeated union-backed Imelda Padilla to claim the vacant District 6 post.
Zimmer had the support of labor unions, Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials but was targeted by charter school backers who poured millions of dollars into the race on behalf of Melvoin, hoping to shift the balance of power on the seven-member board in support of charters.
Gonez and Melvoin join incumbents Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez to create a four-member majority of charter-school supporters on the board. Garcia was also sworn in July after winning re-election. Rodriguez was chosen as the board’s new president and he appointed Garcia is vice president.
With the unions and well-heeled backers of charter-school expansion pouring big money into the races, the May runoff became what is believed to have been one of the most expensive school board elections in history, with an estimated $15 million being spent by and on behalf of the various candidates.
Charter supporters — including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad — contend that charters tend to produce better results for students and provide more choices for parents, but opponents point to sometimes-questionable management practices, alleging that some of the schools hand-pick higher-performing students to the detriment of others.
Critics also contend that a proliferation of charters — which are publicly funded but often operate free of unions and some regulations that govern traditional public schools — would be a financial hit to the LAUSD, which receives state funding based on enrollment.
Still to be seen is whether the shift in ideology on the board could affect the employment of Superintendent Michelle King, who has led the district since January 2016. The outgoing school board last month gave King, who earns $350,000 a year, a two-year contract extension, through 2020.
Anna Bakalis, communications director for United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers, said the union will resist efforts to vastly expand charter schools in the district.
“We expect the new school board members to represent all students and build the civic institution of public education, not tear it down through charter schemes that only benefit small numbers of students,” Bakalis said.
“While we hope the new board members understand this, we also know who bought the last election, and we know the battle ahead to get the schools our students, educators and communities deserve. We’re ready to continue that battle.”
Gonez, a former teacher and education adviser in President Barack Obama’s administration, called it an honor to join the board.
“I am especially proud to represent the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where I grew up in an immigrant family,” Gonez said. “This school district has the opportunity to make dreams come true, and I am eager to begin the work to make the dream of a great public education a reality for all students.”
Gonez told City News Service her goals as a board member include ensuring “that all students graduate ready for college and careers” and improving “support for teachers so they can grow and provide high-quality instruction to all children.”
Gonez pledged to “seek to increase family engagement in the decision-making process so that the community has a meaningful voice in district decisions.”
Gonez told CNS that while “the district has made improvements in recent years” in the education it provides to children from impoverished families, “we still have a great deal of work to do before we can truly say that every child is receiving a great education.”
“This is particularly true for special populations of students, including English language learners,” Gonez said. “We know that there’s no easy answers for improving outcomes, but it takes everyone working together from instructional aides to school leaders to district staff to board members.”
Melvoin argued during the campaign that the district is failing to meet the needs of students, with only 27 percent “performing at grade level in math.”
“Too many of our families are left without options,” he said. “Instead of partnering with parents to ensure children get the best education they can, the district bureaucracy stands in the way of parents and impedes the progress individual schools are making.”