LAUSD BD5 Candidate Heather Repenning: 'I Think 100 Percent, Parents Should Have A Seat At The Table'

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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 are running for school board.

Heather Repenning: Public education is very important to me. I'm a product of public schools. Growing up, my mom was a public school teacher, and because of her understanding of public education, she was able to identify great schools for my brother and I, and I was able to go to college and do a lot more professionally than I would have done under other circumstances. My family comes from a humble background. Originally we’re from Kentucky. To me, public education is the doorway. It is how we allow our young people to pull themselves ahead to do the things that they never imagined. And I don't think that we're doing that particularly well right now. I don't think there's any one thing or person to blame, but the issues around how we create great neighborhood public schools are very complex and require a lot of hard work. Personally, I've worked in local government for many years, and I know the work it takes to move bureaucracy, create policy and build coalitions to move great policy forward. So I feel like I have the skills to do that. Because education is so important to me, I've worked [in education] at different points in my career. I was in the classroom for a few years right out of college, and I worked at LAUSD helping organize parents and other stakeholders around the process of building new schools. I worked on the previous Ambassador Hotel, now the RFK schools site, and advocating for the new schools that are now thriving on that site.

Speak UP: You taught early in your career. Was this in Honduras? Is that how you became fluent in Spanish?

Heather: Yes, I spent time teaching in Honduras, in a bilingual school, and then I moved to Southern California to pursue graduate school. Actually, I was on the pathway to becoming an academic. I was in a PhD program. At the time I was teaching composition to undergrads at UC Irvine. And I also previously taught an ESL class at LA City College.

Speak UP: So you do have some teaching experience, and you're also a parent of an LAUSD student?

Heather: I have one daughter. She's in second grade and she goes Ivanhoe School, our local LAUSD School.

Speak UP: What has been your experience at Ivanhoe?

Heather: We're really lucky. Our neighborhood school is one of the great ones at LAUSD. I would love for every family to have that in their neighborhood.

Speak UP:  How has being a parent affected your view of LAUSD and its strengths and challenges and what needs to change?

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Heather: What I see as a parent and as part of our school community, the solutions for improving schools are often there inside the school, with the parents, with the leaders of the school. The big challenge is how do we move a big bureaucracy like LAUSD to be able to meet us halfway at our school sites, to come in with an attitude of getting to yes? The things that individual school communities want to improve in their schools often aren't unaffordable. They're not complicated. They shouldn't be out of reach. And too often LAUSD has a culture of not being able to kind of meet people halfway on those things. Flexibility is really important. Local control is really important, and that's part of what my experience has been as a parent.

Speak UP: Have you experienced anything specific at your school where the bureaucracy has hindered what parents have wanted to do?

Heather: In the case of our school, there is a lot of parent empowerment. That's one of the big takeaways for me is that when the parents are actually empowered, the bureaucracy does move and they do find a way. Unfortunately, I think it's not in many school campuses that you're going to find that. I always think about how LAUSD is able to serve those families that aren't able to work the system.

Speak UP: The vast majority of LAUSD students are at, near or below the poverty line and rely on free and reduced lunch. And many parents are undocumented immigrants who might feel very afraid of speaking up and using their voices to challenge some of those things. How, from a policy perspective, can we empower those parents to have more of a voice in the system so it's not just the wealthier parents who are able to work the system and get what they need?

Heather: In terms of addressing poverty, it's very important that leadership at LAUSD finds ways to enable those services that our most impoverished communities need to be available at the school site. The more that we can bring social-emotional support or health care or healthy food or some of these services that are preventing our kids from being ready to learn once they get in the classroom, to the school site, that on its own is a way of helping level the playing field. Beyond that, I think it's really important for the district to meet parents halfway. Parents are willing in many cases to do incredible things for their kids. How does the district meet us halfway, whether it's being able to provide more educational workshops or being able to offer information on a Saturday instead of during the workday. There are certain basic things: conducting board meetings maybe out in the community in the evening to make the ultimate decision-making body more available and accessible. There are a lot of really easy things that can be done. Investing in parents is a great investment in our students. We know that students are able to be much more successful if they have parents who are able to really support their learning.

Speak UP: Right now we don't have any parent of an LAUSD student on the board. Do you think that is something that needs to change? Do you think it's important to have a parent of an LAUSD student on the board?

Heather: I think it's really important. At the end of the day, we're representing the clients of LAUSD, which are the kids. I don't think it's the only perspective that should be represented on the board. And I certainly understand the importance of having educators and administrators on the board. But the parent perspective is a really important one to have in the mix. I talk to parents every day about how they're making decisions around their children's education, how they're trying to figure it out. And I think having that perspective there is a really important one, particularly when it comes to enrollment.

Speak UP: What do you think about the idea of allowing undocumented parents to vote in school board elections? San Francisco recently tried that and obviously, there have been some challenges to getting people to sign up for fear of repercussions with this Trump administration. But do you think it makes sense for parents with kids in the system to be able to vote regardless of their immigration status?

Heather: Yes, I'm in favor of that. The electorate choosing our leaders should reflect the communities that our schools are ultimately serving.

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Speak UP: You have worked for years with Mayor Eric Garcetti both at the City Council and as mayor. And he has endorsed your candidacy, as has the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Can you tell us a little bit about your work with Garcetti and your work at the Department of Public Works and how you think those apply to the job at the LAUSD board?

Heather: Sure. First, I have directly relevant experience serving on the board of a major public agency. Obviously, there's a big difference in scale between the Department of Public Works and LAUSD, but I think it's very relevant. My work with Mayor Garcetti, over the years, I've really learned to be a problem solver and to look at the art of what's possible. I consider myself a collaborator. I think that it is by bringing people together that you get the best outcome. I'm a big believer in public engagement. I believe that government is really only healthy to the degree that it is involving the public. For me, the job of being a school board member is a job of government. It’s creating policy, passing policy, setting policy, looking at budgets, and it's also rolling up your sleeves and getting involved when individual schools need help to solve a problem. It’s being able to remove the bureaucracy quickly to get things done.

Speak UP: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing LAUSD right now?

Heather: Poverty and funding. It's really important for the district to be able to address the fact that many of our kids, 80 percent, are on free and reduced lunch. It's obviously not the core mission of our school system. But until we do really address and focus on poverty, we're not going to be able to be successful. That means bringing the services to campuses and other initiatives. And then funding and getting resources to the school site is the other big challenge. That means, number one, finding areas of waste inside the bureaucracy, and number two, pushing more resources out to the school site and looking at ideas around new revenue.

Speak UP: We do have some examples of public schools in L.A. like Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet and some KIPP schools that serve almost 100 percent kids in poverty but that are highly successful. Do you believe poverty is destiny? What is it about certain schools that can break through the poverty and still find a way to help these kids succeed, versus most schools that really struggle to do that?

Heather: Obviously, I think that every child has an incredible amount of potential, and I wouldn’t be running for the school board if I didn’t think that public education is the key way for us to allow our young people to realize their potential, whatever background they may come from. In looking at what allows some school to succeed under those circumstances with better outcomes in poor communities, I do think a lot of it relates to resources, flexibility, the ability to bring the types of programs and the type of instruction that those communities need.

Speak UP: So do you feel like, ideally, all schools in LAUSD would have more autonomy over things like hiring and curriculum and more flexibility to choose their staff, have the programs that they need, set the curriculum they need? Essentially more decentralization, more autonomy?

Heather: I'm a big fan of local control. That means empowering individual school communities to make decisions around how they're using their funding, what types of programs they're able to offer, what types of curriculum they're able to offer. Again, I think that each community is different, and LAUSD needs to do a better job at responding and making it possible to support those ideas and efforts and plans that individual school communities have for improvement.

Speak UP: I know that Board Members Nick Melvoin and Richard Vladovic have been working on a resolution to get rid of non-consensual hiring at schools so that no principal would be forced to hire someone they don't want, and no teacher would be forced to go to a school they don't want to go to. Do you think that's a good idea?

Heather: I haven't looked at that resolution, and I don't have an opinion on it yet. I would want to get a lot more information about how that would work.

Speak UP: What about Superintendent Austin Beutner's plan to decentralize the district? Again, we haven't seen the plan yet, but in concept, do you support the idea of more decentralization—sending more money directly to the school site and cutting the bureaucracy at Beaudry?

Heather: I think we need a lot more information on what the plan involves. In general, we need a more responsive bureaucracy. If there's a way to bring resources and people out of Beaudry and kind of wrap its arms better around school communities, that could be a positive thing. But we need a lot more information. A lot of folks are concerned that the superintendent's plan is a way to break up the school system, and I don't know if that's a fair assessment or not. For me, the idea of getting more resources out into the community is really important. Certainly if there's a way to make LAUSD more responsive to the needs of individual schools, that could be a positive direction for the district. The other concern I have is, we all want to know how much money we’re going to spend to do this reorganization. How long is it going to take, and is this just another flavor of the month? So there’s a lot more evaluation we all have to do of what this superintendent is looking at.

Speak UP: How do you feel about the superintendent and whether or not we should have some consistent leadership at the top, or do we need another change of superintendent six months after he started? This seat could be pivotal in terms of his job stability in the future.

Heather: In general, I think that the superintendent needs to do a better job of communicating with people. We haven't really seen enough from him to give him the full evaluation yet. But I have some concerns about his ability to get his message across. I think he has a lot of work to do in developing trust with members of local school communities. I know that he is very focused on the health of our district's finances, which obviously is critical. But we also can't lose focus on making progress towards creating great neighborhood public schools. 

Right now there's a big discussion community-wide around how we get nurses and support staff in our schools. My feeling is these are things that we need, and if we can't afford them as a district right now, what's important is what is the plan to get there? What's the plan to move resources out of the bureaucracy so that we have more resources at our school site? And if there’s a conversation that needs to be held around new revenues, what does that look like? There's a lot of talk about going to Sacramento. I don't think that this is a discussion that we should put off until after there's some sort of a settlement around the strike. I would like to see us trying to figure that out now, because I know that as a parent, I don't want to retreat or back away from some of these items that we know our kids need, especially in the poor communities in our district, where kids are coming from very impoverished families. We know that eight out of ten of our kids is on free or reduced lunch. So we need to figure out a plan to help get the appropriate support staff and resources. I don't think it all needs to be solved by LAUSD. There are a lot of other agencies that have a big role to play, and the core of their mission is even more along the lines of the help and welfare of our families. But how do we bring them to the table and bring them to our school site, so that our kids are fully supported and are able to enter the classroom ready to learn?

Speak UP: Do you feel like your city government experience helps you potentially navigate some of those cross-agency bureaucracies?

Heather: Yes. I think that's something exceptional that I bring, and it's not easy, this idea of school as community centers. It's something that people talk about a lot. It’s not easy to always do that. There are a lot of liability and other issues, bureaucratic issues, that keep people that otherwise would want to help our schools and help our kids from actually coming to the table. Having a leader on the board who has background in managing bureaucracy and cutting the red tape, we can get to those solutions that we know are so important for our kids' academic success.

Speak UP: What do you think about the financial state of the district? Right now, a fact finder, two independent review panels, the county and the state have all said that the district's finances are on the brink of insolvency. And, you know, the county has threatened to rescind authority and install a fiscal advisor. So things are somewhat precarious. Do you agree there is a financial crisis? If so, what are the causes? And how can we solve them other than more state funding, which the board doesn't have control over?  

Heather: I think that the causes generally are the systematic underfunding of public education in the State of California. We do need to look at solutions. Our schools are already pretty lean. I don't see a lot of areas to cut as far as the actual services being provided at the school. And of course, I would love to see us expand, and I think we'd all like to see us doing more, when it comes to arts, music, PE, after school programs, a lot of the things that are, I consider basic, but aren't necessarily being offered at all the schools right now.

Speak UP: Yes, so how do we get there, in terms of what the district can control? How do we get what we need?

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Heather: It's important to be able to look at the budget overall. How do we find areas of waste? A topic of interest to me is special education and IEPs, and the money that the district spends on attorneys when parents have to hire their own lawyers to sue the district to get the district to approve an IEP, and the district usually loses. We end up spending all this money, and it's just making people's lives harder, people who are trying to get the best for their kids. There are a number of areas of waste that we can look at first. And looking at new revenue, and whether there are things that we can be doing -- fees on oil extraction, fees around different solutions that we can bring to the table when it comes to being able to make sure that some of the basics of what makes a good school great—the arts, music, PE—are actually funded.

Speak UP: Right now we have the teachers about to go on strike for the first time in 30 years. What are your thoughts on the strike and whether or not it will help change things in a positive way?

Heather: Well, first of all, I'm not going to cross the picket line. I think that teachers are generally incredibly undervalued in our society. And if they are willing to go out on strike, and I believe they have an important message for us. I will support them in that. I would like to see whether some of the issues that they're talking about, not just their own salaries, but also making sure that we have proper support staff at our school sites. I believe that this is a very important conversation. I would like to see if there is a way to have it that doesn't necessarily result in the loss of instructional days for our students. I think that the march that they held recently was very powerful, and are there other opportunities to continue to engage the larger community that don't necessarily end up with students not getting instruction. But it's a really important moment. The conversation about funding, the conversation about missing basic services that our kids need at the school sites is a really important one, both for teachers and for parents.

Speak UP: So you as a parent will keep your kid home, and you have the resources to find childcare to take care of your child during the strike?

Heather: It’s going to be complicated because I am on the campaign trail. But I'm not willing to cross the picket line. I think a lot of parents are going to have the same challenges. And I certainly understand that there are many families that won’t be able to afford to keep their kids home. And I respect that 100 percent, as well. It's difficult, and it’s going to be hard and stressful for parents.

Speak UP: Can you talk about your views on school choice and charter schools and why you chose your neighborhood school?

Heather: I'm very fortunate as a parent to have had some good choices for my child. And that's what I wish for all parents. I would like to see LAUSD offering those choices. I'd like to see LAUSD provide innovation, and provide different types of learning environments. Our kids have different needs, and some of them will do well at larger schools, and some of them will do best in smaller school environments. LAUSD, as a matter of its core mission, should be able to provide the flexibility to create both individual school campuses or also, creating within larger school campuses, those programs and those types of curriculum, those types of services that all of our different kids come with. So that's really my core mission. There are some charter schools that are showing very successful best practices and models. How do we learn from those so that we can do those in LAUSD? Because at the end of the day, I'm really about the public system—the idea that government can be successful, and that the public sector can be successful. But it's going to take a lot of work. And that's why I'm running, is how do we make our LAUSD schools successful, so that parents have options within the public system?

Speak UP: You're not saying that charter schools are not public.

Heather: No, I'm not. It's more for me that I don't think we should have to charter out educational services. I think that when it comes to innovation, we should be able to own that, and do some of those things internally.

Speak UP: The 20 percent of families in LAUSD who have their kids in charter schools want to know that their board member is not going to discriminate against them unfairly. There is so much scapegoating and targeting and political ill will right now. Those parents want to make sure their kids' schools aren't going to be shut down arbitrarily for reasons that are not fair. Or that the locations they are offered are not split across three campuses halfway across town, which has happened in the past. They just want to be treated fairly. They want to know that their representative is going to treat all kids equally and care about all kids, regardless of what type of public school they choose.

Heather: The more nuanced perspective I have as pro-labor, and all of the work I've done in progressive politics and in the Democratic party, as a parent -- we're all still trying to figure it out for our kids. It's not in my wheelhouse, it’s not my perspective, to demonize parents who end up wanting to send their kids to a charter school. My take is, I would like to do those things that parents are looking for in LAUSD. But at the end of the day, as a government leader, they're all of our kids. And I would even say the kids in private school, those are our kids too. And the kids whose families literally move to another district. Or I've talked about the kids of employees of companies that choose not to locate to L.A. because our school system is not as high-quality as we want it to be. To me, I think of all those kids, and I think of how do we get to a system that serves all of them? I'm running because I want to make our LAUSD schools really good and really strong. I think that charters have been able to expand a lot in recent years. And I think we need more information about how they're doing. It's really important that when they come up for review, we have that information. I think that giving a school a charter is an experiment, and I don't think that the experiment should be continued if the clear results aren't there.

Speak UP: Do you feel like that same accountability should apply to district schools? If there's been a persistently failing school for 30 years, what can we do to improve it? If only 1 percent of the students is meeting math standards at a school, should that school be able to continue without any accountability measures?

Heather: We absolutely need to have a focus on performance at all of our schools. Data is really important to me. I don't have a specific opinion on what are the key data points. But I think that data should be easily available to parents and to the public. And it shouldn't just be one data point. It should be an array of different descriptors that allows people to see the different things that are succeeding at the school and areas that need additional focus. For me, as a board member, I would be looking at the schools in my district, and I would want to, on a very regular basis, be reviewing those schools where we want to see improved performance and actually have a plan and be working with the local districts to come up with a plan to really wrap our arms around the schools that need improvements, and have something that allows us to keep ourselves accountable and allows the public to hold us accountable for improvements at those schools.

Speak UP: Do you have any thoughts on what the plans might include?

Heather: I think for each school it's going to be different. The good thing about having good data is that you can actually drill down into the causes of what the challenges are at different school sites. And so for one school, it might be the class sizes are too large. For another school, there might be an issue related to the facility. Is it a lack of a good sports facilities? What are the different challenges facing individual schools, and [how can we] really dive in and help meet those challenges? 

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Speak UP: What about teacher quality? How can we improve teacher quality, through support, but also, teachers right now in California get tenure after 18 months on the job. And it can take years to dismiss an ineffective teacher, and kids, in the meantime, are affected by that. A lot of this is controlled at the state level. But is this something that should change? Should there be reforms to the tenure process? In other states with excellent public school systems, it's more like five years not 18 months. Should it take longer to get permanent job protections? And should it be a little bit easier to dismiss a teacher that is ineffective after they have attempted to support that teacher and improve their practice?

Heather: I think it's very important to support our teachers with professional development opportunities. We want our teachers to continue to grow. I think we need to address the fact that we're facing a teacher shortage in years to come. We need to be looking at what it's going to take in California to get more young people to sign up to go into the teaching profession. A lot of that is how we value teachers as professionals in our society and how we're making sure that they have the opportunity to grow and feel supported in our schools.

Speak UP: How about we pay them a lot more when they start?

Heather: Yes, for sure. I think salary is a big way to do that. But I have to say, a lot of teachers are not in that profession for the income, and we see them spending their own money on their classrooms and on their kids. How do we elevate those teachers that are really going above and beyond? That’s what I would like to see: How we are looking at finding ways to recognize and reward and really support the teachers in our community?

Speak UP: Right now there's a bit of an achievement crisis in LAUSD. Aside from more funding, do you support any policies to help lift student achievement? 

Heather: Equity is really important, the policies that have been passed to promote equity. The focus has to be our schools that need the most help. That's where we start. We make sure that they're getting the funds needed and the support needed. And supporting flexibility. Early education is really important. It's a significant way to close the achievement gap. With new state funds potentially coming in to create new early education classrooms, I think looking at LAUSD schools as an opportunity to do that is very important.

Speak UP: What are your thoughts on your main opponent, Jackie Goldberg?

Heather: Jackie has a long track record of public service, and obviously has been on the board of education in the past. For me, I think looking ahead, what I bring as a candidate is someone who's willing to commit many years of my life. This, to me, is not a stepping stone. This is a job that is going to take years to do correctly. The schools in Board District 5 have not had representation. We’re currently unrepresented. And there's been a lot of turnover. Stability and consistency is important not just in terms of policy making, but in actual constituent services, and having those schools and those communities and parents in those schools know their board members, know their board member staff, and be able to bring their list to their board member of the specific hands-on things that they would like to see at their schools to make them better, because at the end of the day, I believe that many of the answers to improving our specific school sites, our individual schools, are actually found within those local communities. And we want to be able to say yes to those ideas and those initiatives that parents and teachers and administrators and school staff want to bring to the table. The board member, as not just a policy maker, but as a provider of constituent services, has a really critical role. So I'm running to do this. I'm running again in 2020. And I'm committing that this is something that I will give as many years of my life as the public will have me to try to figure out. I know that unfortunately with our schools, there is urgency there, but I do know that doing big things takes time.

Speak UP: Jackie Goldberg has said she would leave after a year. So putting all this effort into a campaign, you think it's better to elect somebody who's committed to serving for more than a year?

Heather: I'm really interested in just making my case right now. My mom told me not to talk about any of my opponents, so I am just talking about myself. And to me, this is a really important job. It's one of the most important jobs in the region. It's also one of the hardest, and I go into it eyes wide open, knowing how tough it's going to be. I want people to know that I'm committed to doing the work to stay in there and to helping hundreds of thousands of kids have opportunity to have a better education. 

Speak UP: Every person in the school building right now has a powerful union representing their interests, except for parents or kids. Do you feel like parents should have a seat at the table when it comes to all of these decisions that really affect their kids?

Heather: I think 100 percent parents should have a seat at the table. It's really important that parents have a vehicle for political power at LAUSD.

Speak UP: Is there anything else you want to say about your platform or yourself? 

Heather: I hope people understand how hard I've worked in my 18 years in public service. For me, being a public servant, being a problem solver, the skills of really bringing people together to solve problems, to cut red tape and find solutions to support and strengthen our LAUSD public schools, I think those are the skills that are really needed on the board right now. My experience in government sets me apart from other candidates. While I will not ever discount the years I've spent in the classroom, at UC Irvine, in Central America, at LA City College, and as a parent, because I sit there and do homework with my daughter. At the end of the day, what I'm bringing to the table is real experience as someone who's done government. I may not have all the ideas myself, but I want to be able to bring people around me who are really smart, who are experienced, who can bring to me their perspectives, and integrate that, and get the job done. Moving the bureaucracy is a big challenge. Navigating the difficult and often divisive politics on the board is a big challenge. I’m someone that has that experience, and that's really why I'm running, because I feel like I'm at the point in my career where I can offer that up to the most important mission we have, which is educating our kids. And it's definitely not easy, but I think we can do so much better for our kids.

Speak UP: You have a lot of constituents with a lot of different interests. It's a tough job.

Heather: Yeah. It's emotional. We're talking about children, and I think in many cases we're not doing as well as we want. There's a lot of frustration, but I think that there are a lot of really good people who are in the mix. They might not always agree on the best approach, but they all deserve a fair hearing, and to have their ideas represented. I think with a collaborative type of leadership, we can do that.