As Ref Rodriguez Resigns, Parents Worry Vacant Seat Will Leave Them Unrepresented

LAUSD Board Member Ref Rodriguez (BD5) resigned from the Board Monday after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy and reimbursing campaign donors with his own funds. His departure leaves parents and kids in Board District 5 without representation at a critical moment of change under the leadership of LAUSD’s new Superintendent Austin Beutner.

Ref Rodriguez

Ref Rodriguez

Speak UP joins the parents in District 5 to urge the Board to rapidly appoint a voting member to represent the needs of parents and kids — at least until a special election can be held. "To leave them without a voting member disenfranchises these parents. It would create an enormous inequity for the students in Board District 5,” said Speak UP Executive Director Katie Braude, who called it “a sad day for the kids of Los Angeles.”

Board President Monica Garcia (BD2) and Vice President Nick Melvoin (BD4) released a joint statement saying they “hope to convene the Board in the coming weeks to collaboratively decide” what to do. “While we would like to ensure no break in representation for District 5 by appointing a temporary voting representative as soon as possible, we would also like to call a special election to fill the vacancy as soon as we can. A Board majority will have to agree to a plan.”

The Board has 60 days to call a special election, and filing deadlines make it unlikely that an election could be held this November in conjunction with the midterms. Board Member Kelly Gonez (BD6), who is on maternity leave, released her own statement saying that questions about what happens next “will be answered in due time. In the meantime, I hope we can work to restore the public’s trust in the process, and each rededicate ourselves to strengthening public education for all kids in Los Angeles.”

But parents in Board District 5 were not happy to be left in limbo. Huntington Park parent and Speak UP member Gloria Rodriguez (no relation to Ref Rodriguez), has one child attending a traditional LAUSD school and one at a charter school. She cried when she heard the news of the resignation.

“We’ve never had anybody support us the way that he did,” she said. “Ref had an open-door policy. He really listened and acted, and that’s something that we’ve never had before. He did it for everybody. Kids first — all kids, period. The parents at my parent center are really upset. We’re just wondering, so now what? We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Ref Rodriguez released a statement apologizing to his constituents after appearing in court Monday and receiving probation, community service and a $100,000 fine. “It has been the honor of my life to serve the communities of Board District 5 as their L.A. Unified board member. My life’s work has been to serve others. It will remain the same — I will just pursue that work from a different position. Today, I resign from the L.A. Unified Board to resume my role as a private citizen and community advocate. Thank you to the parents, students, community members, my staff, and everyone who has given me their unwavering support. I am sorry for the mistakes I have made.”

While a small group of parents showed up at court to demand his resignation, many parents continued to support Rodriguez in spite of his legal troubles because of their direct experiences with him as a Board member and champion for LAUSD’s most vulnerable kids.

Rodriguez was an openly gay pioneer for LGBTQ students and was responsible for moving the district toward more compassionate restorative justice discipline model — interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. He was also the Board’s strongest proponent of early childhood education, passing a Birth to 8 Roadmap to improve early literacy.

“We certainly don’t condone unlawful actions, and we appreciate that Ref Rodriguez has taken responsibility for his mistakes,” Braude said. “During his time on the Board, however, Ref was always a champion for the rights of kids and parents. His first action as president of the Board was to pass the Kids First resolution, which mandated putting the needs of kids before the needs of adults. Ref and his staff were always responsive to the needs of students in his district and the parents who reached out to him. The families of Board District 5 deserve a representative who will continue to put kids first, respect parent choices and respond to parent concerns.”

Rodriguez was especially welcomed by the parents in the southeastern portion of BD5, where the primarily low-income Latino parents have felt disenfranchised compared to wealthier northern parts of the district such as Silver Lake. “Not only did he have the same story as many of us, but he spoke Spanish,” said Gloria Rodriguez. “We haven’t had that in so many years.”  

She’s also grateful that Rodriguez personally supported her lesbian daughter after she faced insensitive treatment from school staff and that he sponsored a resolution to add more sensitivity training and other help for LGBTQ kids. “He helped my daughter and many others,” she said.

It’s not yet clear how Rodriguez’ departure will affect the politics on the Board. With only six voting members, the potential for gridlock certainly increases. But while Rodriguez voted reliably to put the interests of kids before the interests of adults and supported efforts to reform LAUSD, there’s been no consistent voting bloc on the Board, and alliances have often shifted in unpredictable ways.

Superintendent Austin Beutner

Superintendent Austin Beutner

Board Member Richard Vladovic (BD7), for instance, has proven to be a key swing vote. He was one of the strongest proponents for hiring Beutner to lead the district through its current financial crisis, and he supports Beutner’s plans to “disrupt” and radically decentralize the district.

With the departure of Rodriguez, Vladovic has emerged as one of the most powerful members — if not the most powerful member — on the entire Board. With his support, Beutner retains the backing of the Board majority even without Rodriguez there, which is crucial to his job security.

While some Board watchers have framed the Board majority elected last May as "pro-charter," parents believe the simplistic union-versus-charter narrative, created because of the traditional funders of school Board races, does not accurately reflect the realities they and their children experience. Many parents have had kids at both district and charter schools and don’t see any conflict between the two except when fueled by adult employees with their own interests at heart — not that of the kids.

Raquel Toscano, a parent from Bell with two teenagers at LAUSD’s Maywood Center For Enriched Studies, a district magnet school Rodriguez helped create, initially believed what she called “propaganda” being spread about Rodriguez by teachers and the paid parent representative at her kids’ prior school.

They had convinced her that Rodriguez wanted to destroy district schools like the one her kids attended. So Toscano called Rodriguez’ office, asked for a meeting and was stunned when Rodriguez called her right back to set one up. “I’m used to the district side, where it takes days or it doesn’t ever happen,” she said. “He said, ‘Sure, we can arrange a meeting.’ I was shocked.”

Toscano entered the meeting poised for a fight but left convinced that he had the interests of kids at heart. In her experience, he listened to and helped parents in areas of the city that had previously been discounted and ignored. With his departure, she is concerned that things will go back to how they were.

“I’m bummed out,” she said. “It’s very upsetting. It took so many years to have somebody on our side. He made a difference. All the work I tried to do as a parent advocate, I’m afraid it’s going to go downhill. Who’s going to sit there? Somebody who knows our community and makes the time to visit our schools? I am very worried.”