BD5 Candidate Graciela Ortiz: 'Many Times, We Are Unfair To Teachers'

This lightly edited interview is part of a series of Q&As with some of the candidates running for the LAUSD Board special election in District 5 on March 5. To read about other candidates, click here.

Speak UP: Tell us who you are and why you are running for school board. 


Graciela Ortiz: I was born and raised in the beautiful city of Huntington Park, and I went to all local schools, graduated from Huntington Park High School in '99. Went off to UCLA. Got my Bachelor's Degree in sociology and a Master's Degree in social work from Cal State Long Beach. I was fortunate enough to get hired with LA Unified. Been working with them for 12 years. I just started my 13th school year as a Pupil Services and Attendance (PSA) counselor. I’m at Linda Marquez High School. I started my career in the South Bay area, became a lead PSA counselor in the district office supporting other school-based counselors, but it was too political for me. So I asked for a transfer to be with the kids. For me, it's about being one-on-one, being able to make those changes. I was fortunate enough to get a school right where I live, to be able to do what I love within my own community.

SU: What do you do as counselor?  

Graciela: I break down every possible barrier that keeps a child from going to school. Crisis intervention, counseling, basic needs resources. Going to the home and doing a bio-psycho-social assessment. It's about incentives [to attend school], reinforcing progress, not perfection.

SU: Linda Marquez was highlighted at a recent Board meeting for having success with student attendance. It's a relatively new pilot school, right?  

Graciela: This is their seventh school year. I have been there six. They built that school specifically to alleviate the overcrowding at Huntington Park High School. I come from an era of when we were year-round schools. We had a vacation in the middle of a semester. Talk about an injustice. Half of my friends graduated, and half of them didn't. And that's just the way it was. Now, there's so many resources that we're able to provide students. And we're getting there, but we're not there yet.

SU: You also serve on the city council?

Graciela: I’m also on the Huntington Park City Council. I've always been passionate about my community and education. When I got to UCLA, I was falling through the cracks. I didn't feel I was ready. You go from a school where you're top of your class, and then you're in one of the top universities in the country. I'm the first in my family to go to college. My father passed away when I was six months. My mom raised me on her own. For her it was just, “graduate from high school, and you'll make it.” And I had a teacher that believed in me and told me to go to UCLA and he said, "If you work hard," and I said, "How are we going to pay for it?" And he said, "Financial aid." My mom was an immigrant from Mexico and for her, it was about the American dream, right? I was it.  

I wanted to get involved in making an impact in our community, and that's why I ran for city council. I was blessed enough to win this last time around. I actually ran four years prior, and I lost by 100 votes against the incumbents. It was a good learning lesson for me. You can't run with fear. You run full force, and if you're passionate about it, then go for it. The second time I ran, that's how I ran. I went for it, and I was a top vote getter. I've been on city council now for three and a half years. I was fortunate enough that my colleagues in my first year voted me in as vice mayor. Following year, I became mayor.  

SU: What have you accomplished in that role?

Graciela: Bringing the community together. Being able to incorporate our schools within the community.  

SU: What is your vision for improving the schools in Board District 5?

Graciela: I think a lot of it has to do with promotion. We have amazing programs in many of our schools, and we don't advertise it enough to our communities, to our parents. The reality is that every school has something to offer, but our communities don't know that. There's a stigma in many of our schools. In the 80s, 50 percent of our students were not graduating. That labeling stays. And many of our community members believe it still.

If we don't highlight the positive, we're always going to focus on the negative, and that’s not going to work. We need to make sure that we highlight our amazing programs, highlight our amazing parent centers and community centers. We highlight our amazing teachers because we have them.  

SU: From an objective standpoint, if you look at the student achievement right now in Board District 5, do you believe we're serving all kids well?  

Graciela: I think we can always do better. I don't think that we ever stop fighting for better or for more. I mean, even if we had a 100 percent graduation rate, we want 100 percent of them going to UCs. We would be cheating our students if we're not striving for more. What we need to do is continue to provide programs for all students. We want all kids to go to college, so let's prepare them. But some students don't want to go to college. So what are we preparing them for? It's about making sure that we have the program that fits each child. We need to talk to our students about their future from pre-K. When you're talking about your achievement gap, and when you're talking about how some schools are not there, well then let's give those schools those resources. The problem is that not all the schools have those resources.  

SU: Let's talk about the district's financial picture. I assume you are a UTLA member?

Graciela: Correct.

SU: Right now, we're on the verge of potentially having the first strike in 30 years, and there's a lot of debate between the district and UTLA over the financial position. The district says we're in a massive financial crisis that could tip into insolvency and state takeover, and UTLA says, "No, you are flush with cash. You have $1.8 billion in the bank." What do you see is the reality of the district's financial position?

Graciela: I'm not in a position to speak on that. One, I'm not a board member, so I don't see the financial reports the way that the board members see them. And I'm not at the table at negotiations, so I don't have that experience. As city council member, I completely understand how difficult situations like these are. To give you my opinion on something that I don't have the full facts in front of me on, it wouldn't be fair. What I can say is I hope that both sides find a common ground and are able to prevent a strike and meet halfway somewhere. I really hope so, for the benefit of our children.  

SU: Will you support your union and go on strike if they decide to do that?

Graciela: We'll cross the bridge when we get there. What I'm praying for every single day is to be able to ensure that our children are able to have a full school year. But it takes two sides, and I know how difficult that is.  

SU: What do you think about the current superintendent? 

Graciela: I don't think he's been there long enough for me to be able to say much about him. I work for him. I'm a counselor, and he's the superintendent of our district. I've never met him. I know that he has a lot of emphasis on attendance right now, so that's big for us.  

SU: Let's talk about your time as the mayor. You passed what was a very controversial ban on charter schools for a year. Can you talk about why you did that and whether or not that should give an indication of your view of charter schools?

Graciela: That decision was specifically based as a council member for the economic development of our community. I don't want to ruin negotiations that are going on right now with the particular development that could be coming.

SU: What does that mean?  

Graciela: Costco. So at that time, I couldn't say it because it wasn’t public. 

SU: You were negotiating with Costco to come in?

Graciela: Correct. In a location where a charter school leased. And we need that location for Costco.  

SU: So it had to do with a specific location and a specific charter?

Graciela: Correct.


SU: So why the blanket ban on all charters?

Graciela: That was the only way that we were able to continue negotiations. It was temporary, and it was a decision that was made for the community of Huntington Park as a council member. Clearly as a board member, it's a different hat that I have to wear. I have explained to the community, and they understand completely. The community's behind me. Sure, there's individuals that don't understand it, but the reality is when a business like Costco is looking at a community like Huntington Park, which would provide the revenue to a city that would be approximately 20 percent of our budget, that is the livelihood and quality of life of our residents. So as a council member, I needed to make a decision based on the residents of Huntington Park. And some people understand it, and some people don't, and that's OK.  

SU: So are you saying that people shouldn't read into that your view on charter schools? What is your view on charter schools?

Graciela: Well, my view on schools, in general, is I believe in good schools, period. I believe in good schools in all our communities. Period. To put a label on a school, I don't believe it's fair. That's a charter school, that's a public school, that's an option school, that's another LAUSD school. Schools are schools. And we need good schools. Period. So I believe in good schools, and I believe in good programs. 

SU: So parents at charters should not be afraid you will deny renewal to their schools?

Graciela: It depends. It has to do with good schools. If a school is doing what they have to do, whether it's in the northeast or in the southeast, and the community wants them there, they have to provide appropriate education and programs for our kids. So I believe in good schools, good educators, and that's what we have. I work with all schools as a council member, and the schools in our community can attest to that.

SU: You're a UTLA member, and one of the pieces of the contract negotiation right now has to do with Prop 39 co-locations, which can be extremely contentious. UTLA would like to create these committees with district parents on them and UTLA members to decide use of space, but there will be no charter parents invited to the committees. So they want to contractually discriminate against one group of parents and give something to another.

Graciela: I just think that we have to look out on what's best for children. I've had to deal with a co-location situation specifically at one of our schools within the community. And in our aspect as a city, we had to put things in place in order to be able to assist both schools. For me, it's about bringing people to the table. I was able to bring in our police department, our operations from L.A. Unified, the charter school administration, the [district] school administration. They all came to the table, and we were able to provide a traffic plan so that parents from both schools would be able to drop off their children and make it safe. I also brought residents in because they were the individuals who were complaining about the new school. And traffic. I am a strong believer that schools need to work with the community. Whatever label you want to put on each school, I've brought individuals to the table to find a common ground.  

SU: I guess that your answer is, you don't necessarily march in lockstep with your union. 

Graciela: As an educator, you have to see it as what's best for children. My views are very clear on good schools to help our communities flourish, and we need to put the children first.

SU: Our last board member obviously resigned in scandal. And I understand from reading in the Los Angeles Times that you had your own ethical issues. The Los Angeles Times said that when you were mayor, a no-bid contract was awarded to a bus company at a much higher rate. Was it triple the rate of the prior one or 46 percent higher? And then they had hired somebody from your campaign and your brother. Then there was also a fleet of buses bought by the city and then leased back to the contractor for $100 a month, which a finance director at the city said was inappropriate. Can you talk about that situation? 

Graciela: It was politics. It didn't happen that way, and I told the reporter that. As soon as we got elected, Oldtimers Foundation gave us a 30-day notice, and the transportation service was going to be cut because they were going bankrupt. That was our old bus company. The buses were already owned by the city. The problem is that they weren't kept up. So when we attempted to have another company take over the service, everybody pretty much laughed at us and says we’re not touching those buses because they're in horrible condition, and it's a safety issue. We’re a commuter town. We have a lot of individuals that can't afford cars. We have a lot of our students who go to school on one side of Huntington Park, and they live on the other side. And a lot of senior citizens. So transportation's very important in our community. We needed to find a company that would do it. So the company came in, and actually it isn't three times the amount. As a matter of fact, the contract that they had was $1.5 million. I mean, there's two different contracts we're talking about. The one they're talking about that came in right off the bat was for our fixed route. Nobody wanted to take that contract because of the condition of the buses. So we were able to get a company that said, "Fine. We'll do it." So we leased the buses to them, and we tried to fix them the best way that we could, but we also purchased some of them, which many cities do.

When we talk about my brother working for the company, after the fact that they got this contract, right, and they picked up all the employees that Oldtimers Foundation had working the transit services. So they pretty much just took over operating it. There were applications to apply. My brother is a junior-high dropout. So he doesn't have a high school diploma. LAUSD failed him. So when I'm accused of, "Oh, he's part owner," I'm sorry he's not. He was getting paid minimum wage. He was washing the vehicles, and he quit his job after the L.A. Times article came out, and he was close to being homeless because of my political career.

SU: You were quoted in the Los Angeles Times that you did not know he was working for the company.

Graciela: I didn't. My brother and I have a rocky relationship. He helps me out when he can. He volunteers on my campaigns when he can, when we're getting along. I try to help him when I can. But at the time, we were in a rocky situation, and he applied and he got it, and good for him, and now he doesn't have a job. 

SU: And how about the guy from your campaign?

Graciela: So the guy from the campaign, he's somebody that I met along the way but he's kind of married to a colleague of mine. He was a volunteer. I had no idea that he was working with them, but he works with a lot of different companies. Many companies have consultants.  

SU: All of this is very complicated for parents. All they know is, "OK, our last representative was kicked out because of a scandal." Is that going to happen again?

Graciela: I follow the rules. I haven't broken any rule. I've never been fined on anything. And keep in mind that this story came out during the time when we were going through a campaign…The individual who lost that contract was feeding information to the [Los Angeles Times reporter]. This is the thing. When we came in, we cut our budget down by half a million dollars in consultant fees, in contracts. So we made a lot of people mad. And that's the reality. We've never shied away from answering any of these questions. So when you ask me, "Is this another scandal?" It's not a scandal, because I didn't do anything wrong. And I never have.

SU: There was a resolution passed in spring to create a performance framework to evaluate schools. Can you talk about your view of how schools should be evaluated?

Graciela: There's so many steps to that because there's a lot of social issues that need to be addressed when we're talking about lack of resources, when we're talking about equity. It's not a one-shoe-fits-all. You have to look at so many different aspects of a school. I mean, to be able to say we're going to give a school a grade or a label. Here we go with the labels again, right? We're going to give them a label because of one particular incident or because of one particular test score or because of one particular percentage. Because there's so many other factors that play into it. I wouldn't be able to even start to tell you how to evaluate one particular school over another particular school.

SU: What about teacher evaluations? Can we evaluate teachers? Do you think you can look at student growth? 


Graciela: This is one of the reasons why I think it's really important to have an educator in this position. Because many times, we are unfair to teachers. Our system places many students in one class. And if that teacher doesn't have the support, it's not fair. I'm not evaluated with the same evaluation form as teachers are. But I have to say that educators have one of the hardest jobs in the world. And if we don't give them the right supports in the classroom, then I believe it's unfair to give everybody one particular metric, to say we're going to grade you on just these three things. But are we looking at all the other social aspects that are affecting that classroom, that grade level, that school, that community? And that's the part where we do have to see a child as a whole, just like we have to see a school as a whole and just like we have to see a classroom as a whole. And we have to see a teacher as a whole. 

SU: We have parents whose kids have teachers who were ineffective or abusive. Or they had different subs every few weeks. So a whole year of education is lost. How can you also protect kids and make sure that they're getting the education they deserve? And is anybody representing the voice of the kids in this process?

Graciela: Well, if all goes well, and I'm a board member, that will be my voice, right? I think that our representative should be the voice of our children. But we have to see the system as a whole. We have many bargaining units within the District. So when you move one piece of a puzzle, you think it may affect only one unit or one school. But it doesn't. It actually causes a ripple effect. So how do you get individuals to come together to agree on one particular thing? And I think that if we start looking at it from the perspective of what's best for the children, then we'll all come to a common ground. It's about not putting labels on things, because that's what we've been doing with our educational system -- putting labels on everything. Bad versus good. Low-performing versus high-performing. It’s like, well, you put these labels, and what are we doing about it?  

SU: What makes you stand out from your competitors in this race? 

Graciela: Education is what has allowed me to become who I am. I had many educators who supported me and believed in me along the way. I've been able to see what good schools do to help shape a community. I have that experience, not only as a product of L.A. Unified, but also as a counselor for 12 years in LA Unified. You need somebody that's going to hit the ground running from day one. I'm a council member. So I know the importance of incorporating the community with our school system. I'm also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker now. To be able to see a child as a whole, you need to see the bio-psycho-social aspect of a child. But you also have to see the bio-psycho-social aspect of L.A. Unified. I've been thinking about running for years. Education's my passion. I've been preparing for years.   

SU: What about funding? There are usually two big groups of funders in these races, teachers unions and charter schools.

Graciela: Where do I stand? I think what's ended up happening in the past, it becomes who won the bucks? Here we go with the labels again, right? So this person’s labeled as this candidate. That person’s labeled as that candidate. For me, I'm running my campaign. I have the community behind me. I'm going to fundraise with my networks. And I'm going to focus on my campaign. In the past, many individuals expect one of the two groups to kind of back them, and then everybody else kind of backs away. For me, I'm going to run full force.

SU: No matter who endorses you or funds you or doesn't fund you? 

Graciela: Correct. Because for me, it's about doing it for the right reasons. Not because it's politics and not because of the salary, because there’s [been] a huge salary increase. I was preparing to run when it was $40,000 a year. I worked so hard to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker so that I can start my private practice to supplement $40,000 if I did get in. To me, it's not about the money. Nothing's ever been given to me. You have to work for it.

SU: Where do parents fit into the system?

Graciela: We have our parent representatives being able to voice their opinions. We have to make sure we continue to have that. We want to make sure that our School Site Councils, our ELAC committees are welcoming, to be able to have the voice of parents and the voice of students. We don't see that across the board. We have to move towards making sure that all our schools are welcoming to our parents, and most importantly, to our kids. From the moment when we're greeting students at the door. That's what we do in the mornings. We greet students at the door, "Good morning. How are you?" We don't know what that child went through the night before. We don't know what that child went through that morning. We don't know what they had to walk through to get here.  

SU: I'm sure you’re on the district’s health plan. LAUSD's benefits plan is more generous than any other school district’s in the state. No other district offers free lifetime benefits for employees, their entire families, and retirees and their spouses with no monthly contribution for insurance premiums. That is what bankrupted the city of Stockton. Independent financial review panelists have said, "This is not sustainable." Especially coupled with the pension crisis.  

Graciela: I know. I'm a city council member. I see that in our city. I get it.

SU: With healthcare, negotiation determines the amount the district pays into this Health Benefits Committee, but the unions determine the plans. Within 15 years, half of the LAUSD budget is going to be going outside the classroom to retiree pensions and healthcare. And we have a $15 billion unfunded retiree healthcare liability. This means that we have some really difficult decisions to make. How would you deal with that? Teachers are paying for this with larger class sizes. Parents and teachers want smaller class sizes. But UTLA's not going to tell its working teachers, "Hey, all this money is going to the retirees." 

Graciela: It's systems across the board. It's not just L.A. Unified. It's local government. It's cities, as well. Everybody's dealing with that problem. The pension crisis is something that every single entity, government agency in the state is dealing with. 

SU: What about the healthcare liability?

Graciela: If you're asking me to solve the problem in one sitting, that's just not going to happen. I'm not going to be able to solve the problem.

SU: The District has listed ways we can save money. If they move to the lowest-cost health plan, they save $169 million a year, which can go to lowering class sizes. But again, the unions control this. They have to come to the table and decide they're going to work on this. 

Graciela: Well, I wouldn't have the control over it regardless, right? I mean as a board member, you don't have individual control. 

SU: You do control the money paid in. They control the plan. But the board decides how much money to give the unions to work with. If they give a little less, then the unions will be forced to just say, "Okay. We're going to require a $25 a month contribution for your health plan.” Or, "We are going to move to Kaiser, and if you want a different plan, you have to pay the difference."

Graciela: There have been changes. When I first started with the district, the co-pay, I believe, was zero. And now we have a co-pay of $20. And many cities have a co-pay that's $5. So changes have been made. It's probably not as fast as it needs to be, possibly. But I wouldn't be able to tell you, "This is how to fix that financial crisis." It's not something that can be fixed with one wand. We have to make sure that we are providing enticing [benefits]. We just talked about good employees, educators. Benefits is one thing that attracts people, right? But I'm also very aware about being fiscally responsible, because as a council member, I have to be fiscally responsible. So it's a difficult question to answer and say how would you fix that because it's not a one-person decision. It's not a one-board member decision. It's a full-board decision. And if you don't come to the table to actually talk about it, then you're never going to find a common ground. What's important to one particular entity may be not as important to the other entity, right? And when I say entities, I mean there's just so many different key players within L.A. Unified. You have different bargaining units. So I wouldn't be able to tell you, "This is the way I'll fix it," because a board member doesn't have that power. Let's be realistic toward the position actually does.

SU: You have one vote, though.

Graciela: And that's it. And if you don't see all sides of it as a board member, then you're not going to be able to make the appropriate decision. I think everybody just has to make sure that they're open-minded. Everybody comes to the table. And everybody tries to see what's best for us as a whole.

SU: Is there anything else you want to say to parents?

Graciela: Parents are the key to education. We could provide the best, best district in the world. But if we don't have parent involvement, we don't have much. So not only is it important to get involved with this election. But it's important to get involved on a daily basis with your child's education. It's important to know that children's education is what's going to be the livelihood of our communities. They are our future, as cliché as it sounds. And one of the biggest things that I do as an educator and council member is provide opportunities for kids that I never had. Let’s try to help the system be better than what it is. And to not go back to what it once was.