LAUSD BD 5 Candidate Ana Cubas: ‘My Teachers Have Been My Saving Grace.’

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 about yourself and why you're running for school board.


Ana: For me, education has been a way out of poverty and a way to empower myself, my family, my community. I'm the first in my family to go to college. My story is like many stories in L.A. and in our country. The American dream. I came when I was 10 from El Salvador. So it breaks my heart to see the caravan because we were actually caught at the border, and we were at a detention center for three weeks. Back then, they didn't separate families so we were together, but still in a detention center. That really affected me. I knew that I had to, even as a young girl -- 10, for goodness' sake, a child -- fight for my rights because I often had to speak up on behalf of my family about things. Now, because I had amazing teachers, I learned English very quickly. I had a dual immersion program. 

SU: Were you in an LAUSD school? 

Ana: I ended up at a Santa Monica public school because my uncle was there, and me and my mom and my dad and my sister moved in with him in a one-bedroom apartment in the Pico neighborhood. I had an amazing teacher in my combined 5th and 6th grade class. And in high school, I had a government teacher, Mr. Cady, who went to Berkeley in the '60s. Very hippie, liberal, so the class was about social justice. And he said to me one day, "Ana, you're bright. You need to go to college. I want you to apply to Berkeley." I had never heard of Berkeley, but because of him, I applied. I got in, and I graduated with highest honors. My teachers have been my saving grace. And school for me was a safe haven from the gang activity in my neighborhood, from the dysfunction of my family and the poverty. In a nutshell, that's who I am, and why I'm running. I'm an immigrant, the first in my family to go to college. I know what works because I know what worked for me. Engaged great teachers.  

SU: And you went to Princeton and USC, as well?

Ana: I went to Princeton for my masters and USC, yes. When I was a kid, I loved to read. My mom was working, my dad was working so I used to pick up my sister, take her to the library and stay there until 6 p.m. I read most of the books in that library. So I'm a big fan of the library system, and I think every child should have an L.A. City or an L.A. County library card.  

SU: Tell us about your professional experience and how that prepared you for this job.

Ana: I have pretty good work experience that helps me understand the LAUSD bureaucracy, education policy in general. My first job out of Princeton was working at the U.S. Department of Education, implementing statewide standards. So, what children should know and be able to learn at each grade level by subject. This helps teachers. I'm an educator. If I know what I need to teach my students, then I'm good. 

SU: What do you teach? You're a college professor now?

Ana: Yes, at East LA College, I teach citizenship and political science. I [also] worked as a legislative analyst in Sacramento. I analyzed the governor's budget, so I understand the K-12 financing. As you know, California is very low on per-pupil spending, and I think that’s a shame, and I'll work towards ensuring that we have that increased. Fast forward to me working at the school board and L.A. City Council. I was an [LAUSD Board Member] field deputy and legislative director for four years. At that time, our big mission was to pass the four school bond measures to build all of these new schools that you see.

 SU: Because there was overcrowding? 

Ana: Yes, it was huge, and our biggest accomplishment was Belmont Learning Complex. We spent a lot of energy, time and effort organizing parents to make that happen. I'm proud of that.  

SU: You've seen the inside workings of LAUSD and understand the politics of it. 

Ana: I understand the politics, the budget and the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy protects itself, and I always tell people, "Look, it's not an issue of whether charter schools are taking away money from the school district." That’s the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is, what is the school district spending money on? And you'll see a lot of overhead, executive salaries at the top, which I know, because I've been there, is unnecessary. You want more money to go to the school sites. Because of my background, my work experience and my passion for education, that I feel I am the most qualified and prepared. 

SU: I'm going to ask a political question because I know you worked for Jose Huizar. He's under a lot of scrutiny right now for ethical problems. Are you concerned that working for him both at the school board and at the city council is going to impact you and your campaign? 

Ana: I don't believe so. I haven't worked for him for a very long time. It's been over seven years, and I believe that I've made a name for myself in helping the community as an activist, establishing the Latina Public Service Academy. We train high school Latinas, 10th, 11th and 12th graders from all over LAUSD to become public servants. So, it's sort of like an EMILY's List bootcamp but for teens. I remember my own experience as a 16 year old. My English teacher gave me the application for the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project. I did the program, and that's when I knew I wanted to be in politics. So, I know when a 16 year old thinks about these things, it's a big deal. God bless [my English teacher], because if it weren't for her, I would have never gone to this program. If she hadn't done that, my life would have been so different. And this is what I love about teaching and being an educator. 

SU: And you ran for city council yourself in 2013 and came really close. Can you talk about what you learned from that experience? 

Ana: Walking door-to-door was my favorite. You realize how good people are. They welcome you into their home. They’ll gladly sign your petition. They’ll say, "Yes, I'm going to vote for you." People put their faith in me, and it was a great responsibility. I feel this way, too, about all those parents who every day drop their kid off at school. They were like my parents, struggling to pay rent, to buy food, to buy school supplies. So, I feel like it really changed me in a way that was extraordinary.

SU: You were also Deputy Director of YPI [Youth Policy Institute], and you started a couple of schools. Can you talk about that?

Ana: Yes, I was there for about four years after I worked at the school board. YPI at that time had started up the Bert Corona Charter Middle School in Pacoima, and because I worked for Alex Padilla on the City Council, that was the area I covered, so I knew a lot of the players. I helped YPI get that up and running because they didn't have a campus. By the time I joined them, they had the [charter] petition approved, but that was it. No teachers, no principal, nothing. It was quite an amazing opportunity to get a school up and running. The biggest challenge, of course, was facilities. I knew a nonprofit in the area, the Japanese American Community Center, and I noticed the baseball field that they never used. We built six bungalows on it. I led that effort. We hired the teachers. The principal was actually a good friend of mine who I knew and recruited. We're fellow Cal Bears.

SU: YPI also works with district schools, right? 

Ana: They do after-school programs, as well. I was part of the growth effort. They are in a lot of the LAUSD schools in low-income areas.

SU: There are now two charter schools that are part of YPI. I don’t know a lot about them, but at first glance, it looks like the students there are struggling to achieve. How do you feel about the level of student achievement at the schools, how well those schools are doing?

Ana: I think they're doing great. They could be doing better, of course, just like every charter school, every neighborhood school. The big challenge for a lot of our schools is homelessness or foster kids. It feels like things have gotten worse, not better. That's scary to me. Knowing that and knowing that some of the children come in with limited English skills, just as I did, it's a challenge to boost everyone up. And it boils down to the leadership of the principal and the teachers, of course.  

SU: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing LAUSD right now?

Ana: The teacher’s strike. I really hope that the district can sit down with the teachers and negotiate an agreement. All of us would like to avoid a strike. I was talking to someone and they said, "The UTLA [United Teachers Los Angeles] doesn’t have a strike fund." So, when teachers strike, they're not getting paid. That’s a big challenge, and I hope that [Superintendent Austin] Beutner can have the leadership to make that work.

SU: Many believe they're going to strike no matter what. 

Ana: In January. Everyone’s saying that. And the sticking point actually relates to charter schools and class size. The district has already agreed to a 6 percent salary increase. That's really good. I mean, I'm very pro-charter, but at the same time, I'm an [American Federation of Teachers] AFT member through my union at the college guild. Guess what they negotiated? A little salary bump, and now the district pays half of my healthcare because I'm an adjunct professor until I get tenure. So, that's really good. I was paying covered California a full $600 a month, and now, it's half of that. So, thank you for my union for negotiating that. So I totally understand UTLA, where they’re coming from. I do think that of all the unions, they tend to be more militant. And so it's a little tougher, but I do believe that at the end of the day, both sides will act in the best interest of the children because that's who loses, right? If there's no classes being taught, what are they going to do? What are the parents going to do with the children? We have to look at their safety.

SU: We have an achievement crisis in LAUSD. What can we do to fix it? 

Ana: My platform includes raising our literacy scores. I am concerned about 3rd and 4th grade because once kids are behind in reading and writing, by the time they're in middle school, it is too late, and in high school, forget it. I mean, you've lost them unless you do intensive remediation. It's hard to get them on track, so they’ll drop out, or they’ll just barely graduate and go [try to] find a job. But 3rd and 4th grade, there's still time to really help the kids, so it's intensive supplemental programs that target the kids that need the help. And number two, frankly, it's just helping teachers understand different ways of learning so that they’re able to teach to different styles. Different kids have different ways of learning.

SU: Yes, and some kids have dyslexia, and there's not a lot of training on how to teach kids that are struggling. We have a lot of families who have kids with special needs and who are English learners, sometimes both. Do you have any thoughts on what we can do to really help the most vulnerable groups that are struggling? 

Ana: The main formula, even for me, remember, I was poor, didn't speak a word of English and, frankly, I don’t think I had extra school help, but it was the teacher. She was so good. She did have a teacher’s assistant. We had in our classroom different reading groups based on your level. So, those of us that were first learning English, we were in one group, with the TA and the teacher helping intensively so that during the classroom time, kids were not lost. We had a lot of divided-up time. So, helping our teachers get a TA or two TAs who can help with the different reading abilities.

SU: All of which costs money.

Ana: Of course it does, yes. But you know what? Based on my state budget experience, what is LAUSD doing with all the money it gets? Some of the salaries of the top people are pretty insane.

SU: So, do you support Superintendent Austin Beutner’s plan to cut the bureaucracy and decentralize the district?

Ana: I want to see the details because my fear is that you're increasing the bureaucracy in doing another layer. I haven't seen the budget numbers. How many people is that helping in the classroom? If so, how? I'm not a fan of adding layers to the bureaucracy because, frankly, I feel like we should go directly to the school and directly to the classroom so the principal can look at their budget and hire TAs. Wouldn't that be better than adding another layer of bureaucrats?

SU: In schools where you have wealthier parents, they fundraise to get TAs in the classrooms, so it’s very inequitable. The kids who need the least amount of help are actually getting the most help in the classroom because the parents are fundraising. That's really not fair for the kids who can't do that. 

Ana: It is not fair, that's right, and it's the part of equity that we have to talk about, right? Because equity doesn’t mean you have an equal amount of money. Equity means you allocate based on need. That's my definition of equity.

SU: How do you think LAUSD has done in terms of equity?

Ana: I remember when we were there at the school board, we said, "Okay, when we adopt the budget documents, we'd like to see a school-by-school budget," and the district would not do it. I'm like, "How's that possible?" That boggled my mind. 

SU: Do you think it's the best teachers and the most expensive that are teaching at schools in the wealthier areas?

Ana: Yes. It's called the Dance of the Lemons. They place the lemons [in low-income areas]. Some of them, it’s about professional development. I'm an instructor now, and I get it. Like, "Oh, I need help. I need to know how to do this." But this is what I find interesting: In the city, the same thing. City rec and parks, they send their worst employees to the low-income neighborhoods. Because they know that those parents are not going to say anything. 

SU: Is it because they have extraordinary job protections that you cannot get rid of people who shouldn't be there? 

Ana: For LAUSD, yes. L.A. City is a little bit better, but LAUSD, you have your negotiated process. And back when I was there, the way they evaluated teachers was pretty archaic.

SU: Some teachers only get evaluated every five years. They still don't really factor in parent or student input. We have a school performance framework being developed. What factors do you think should be considered in evaluating teachers and how a school is doing? 

Ana: Well, you have parent satisfaction and even student satisfaction. You can query a 3rd grader. They will tell you the truth. So teacher, student, community satisfaction, parents and stakeholders around the campus. This is where I think LAUSD can learn from the charter community. Because the charter community has gotten way better about assessing their own performance. It's in their best interest because every five years, you've got to get renewed. But for their teachers, most of them have a year-to-year contract. So, you better know from your parents, from your students, from the peers how that teacher is doing. I believe that we should look at that, and now there's an opportunity because UTLA wants certain things. Well, let's do that in exchange for more accountability. 

SU: A lot of it, unfortunately, is state law, though. Teachers get tenure after 15 months on the job, seniority-based layoffs. Do you support changes to those state laws? Should one year of teaching be all it takes to get tenure? 

Ana: Yes, I would work towards that. Let's say in one year, you have an extraordinary teacher. I would love to give tenure to that teacher. So, let's base it [on something] other than time. Quality, performance. I would fight for that.  

SU: It should be quality rather than quantity of time. And that's what it is in the college world. You don’t get tenure just because you've been there for a certain amount of time. You have to earn it. 

Ana: Exactly. You have to work for it. So, I would agree with changes to that.

SU: And this system makes it hard to dismiss ineffective teachers. And so, they get shuffled around, and there are must-place teachers that had problems and got pushed out of schools, but they’re still guaranteed a job. So, who gets stuck with them?

Ana: All the students in District 5. Let's be real here. Compared to Nick [Melvoin]’s district, do they go there? No.

SU: We talked a little bit about the financial crisis. Aside from the bloated bureaucracy, what do you see as the other root causes of the financial crisis, and how do we fix it?

Ana: Well, number one, the state budget is doing well and has a surplus. So that should trickle down to the school districts. The immediate thing UTLA will say is that charter schools have taken money away, and that's why they're in a crisis, which is bogus. I don't believe that because I know budgets. That's my thing. I've always liked budgets because if you look at a budget, you know what the priorities are. So, let's look at the budget of LAUSD. It prioritizes the people at Beaudry. And it's 27 floors of people. You have to analyze, what is their effectiveness? Granted, you need some level of oversight, but how are they actually affecting classroom? So, that’s one layer I'd like to look at in terms of where are we fiscally, and do we need those layers?

SU: You talked about healthcare, and how because of your union, you get half of the monthly insurance premiums paid for. In LAUSD, every employee, every retiree, their spouses and children get free insurance for life, which sounds wonderful. I think we all wish we had that in our society, but it is more generous and expensive than at any other school district. It's a little out of line with the norm.

Ana: That is out of line.

SU: And it's difficult to adjust because the unions control the plans, but within the next 10-15 years, half the funding is going to go outside the classroom just to pay for retiree pensions and healthcare. Can you talk about the amount of money being spent on retirees? What can we do about this?

Ana: For the L.A. City unions, I was there when the fiscal crisis hit in '08 to '11. At the end of the day, all city employees took a 2 percent pay cut. The city council decided instead of massive layoffs, we're all going to bear the brunt of the pain together, and everyone, including the council members and their offices, took a 2 percent pay cut. That taught me a lot about leadership because you have to make the tough choices. [On healthcare], the L.A. City unions did something smart. They went with the city to the healthcare providers and said, "You need to lower our cost," and they did. Because they threatened to pull out and so these providers were like, "Oh, no. That's a big account." So, they came back with a better plan for a lower cost. I'll tell you the labor leader who did that. Cheryl Parisi and her team got that done for the city. Everyone knows that these healthcare providers are gouging us. I would love to see [UTLA President] Alex Caputo-Pearl go with Beutner to Kaiser, to Blue Cross-Blue Shield and say, "You've got to work with us."  

SU: There's a lot of rhetoric trying to divide parents based on the kind of schools their kids attend. We have parents with kids at every kind of school you can imagine. Some have one kid at a charter and one kid at district school because kids have different needs. Who is trying to divide parents along these lines and why? It seems like it's more about union money and politics than kids. 

Ana: Right, membership dues. All the teachers that go to work at charters, that's less membership. Obviously, that's part of it. But it saddens me because last time I was there at the school district, it wasn’t so vicious. I think at that time, charters were identified as a place for innovation and to have unique opportunities for our kids and choices for our parents. And unfortunately, now, it's so divided that the charter schools and the parents that put their kids in charter schools are made to be evil, and the teachers who teach there. So, it saddens me that we're here because I think it's all about having choices.

SU: There's a lot of Trump-like rhetoric about “invasion,” when it comes to charter co-locations. It sounds very similar to Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. It has gotten so toxic and divisive, and little kids suffer from that.

Ana: They do, and I'll tell you something. L.A. Metro, the transportation authority, in the bond measure they passed, they got some funding to create a charter school for transportation careers. So, they’re working on that, and I'm excited. I would love as a school board member to be there at L.A. Metro and say, "I'm excited about all of our kids choosing these careers because they will have work." I am pro-charter because I do believe it gives our families choices, but there's got to be accountability.

SU: Yes, and with our district schools, should they be given similar kind of autonomy over hiring, over their budgets? Do you feel like they would perform better if they had similar charter-like autonomy?

Ana: I think so. I think if you were to talk to the principals, they would say, "Absolutely, yes." Which is why we advocated for a school-by-school budget because the principals themselves don't know what's in their budget. They're in the dark, which is upsetting because if you're the leader of something, you've got to know what you're working with. Absolutely, we need our principals to be empowered to make those budget decisions based on the needs of the kids.  

SU: And we also need training, don't we, for the principals? Because if you just give people autonomy that haven't had good training in management skills, there can be problems.

Ana: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think New York City schools set up a pretty good principal's academy, from what I remember. They're a model for that.

SU: Is there anything else that you would prioritize if elected?

Ana: College access. At the high school level, you have kids like me. I got good grades, but did I know about college or what classes to take? Not really. I was sort of funneled through in middle school because I got into the GATE classes. So a better way of getting those students opportunities to go to college.

SU: Were you prepared when you got to Berkeley?  


Ana: I actually did feel prepared. It wasn't perfect in Santa Monica. But they had all the classes I needed -- AP this, AP that. It makes me sad to think that there's a high school that doesn’t have even one AP class. That is an injustice. It's not even about politics. It is a civil rights violation, where you do not have an equal education. That for me, would be a priority, too, at the high school level, to make sure that we have the classes that our kids need because that will boost our college-going rate.

SU: This Board district is unusual in that you have the northeast and the southeast connected by this thin thread, and a lot of the parents in the southeast have felt disenfranchised and ignored. The north is obviously a wealthier area, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, compared to Huntington Park, Bell. Where do you live?

Ana: Well, interestingly enough, I live in the piece that is the connecter. I live in City Terrace, the sliver that unites the north and the south, because it's close to East L.A. College. Obviously, I'm a City of L.A. person. That’s been my career, but when [I worked for] the school board at that time, District 2 included the southeast cities. So, I met a lot of the parent leaders that way, and we knew to fight for school construction and prioritize those schools, which I'm very proud of, because the southeast schools were multi-track, year-round, the worst calendar, the worst conditions. So at that time, the school board said, "These schools are built first." 

SU: There are many candidates in this race. How will you stand out? 

Ana: I would say my personal story, my background stands out. To have experience at the federal, state and local level in government and governance. And I'm an educator and an AFT member. I can connect people, bring people to the table to collaborate. That's how I like to govern -- through collaboration.

 SU: One of your main opponents is Jackie Goldberg, who has used very divisive rhetoric.

Ana: I have a lot of respect for Jackie Goldberg because she's been a school board member, and when she was on the City Council, I got to see her in action. At that time, I worked for Councilmember Alex Padilla. And for my council race, she endorsed me because she does believe in women being in politics and taking our seat at the table. I do believe her style of leadership has, what's the word? We need a new style of leadership, and I think she brings that baggage that is divisive versus collaborative. I respect her very much, but she does view the world…and I think mostly because she's spending so much time and energy getting the UTLA endorsement.

Someone played out the scenario, "It might be you and Jackie in the runoff." I said, "Good, perfect. I would love that." Actually, that is my ideal scenario because then, you see a contrast about leadership and how to move into the future. Frankly, I think she decided to run because she was upset that the board basically rejected her [appointment]. And what's weird is she's telling people that she'll only serve one year and then for the regular election, she'll handpick her successor. That upsets me the most out of anything, that she's telling people she'll only serve a year. To me, that’s really odd. I don’t understand. Why should people vote for her then?  

SU: How do you feel about the way LAUSD treats parents, and can you think of a way that we can give parents a more powerful voice in the system?

Ana: As a board member and even as a candidate, I want to hear from them. What are their priorities, what would they like? What did my mom like about my school? There was someone that took us to the dentist's office from the school. She was a special person that drove kids who needed to go to the dentist or the doctor because many of us had a lot of healthcare needs. So, I believe in that model that schools are the centers of community. My goal is, how do we serve the families of that area? How do we welcome them? Empower the parents to be the voice for the community and to help each other out because the reality is, even as a school board member, I will not have a magic wand. I'm not going to solve every problem, but the parents should know who to connect with.

And it's that model of the Promise Zone, where you involve an entire community in the education of those children -- the Chambers of Commerce, local businesses, local non-profits. My role as a leader on the school board will be to encourage the principals and the parents to come together and make that happen for their communities. I know as poor, immigrant parents, it's so tough. I remember my mom crying a lot of times and being really sad because of what she was going through. And for me as a child, the school and the teachers, they were where I felt secure and safe and good, and I want that for our kids.