District 5 Special Election Tuesday Could Shift Direction Of LAUSD Board

Voters head to the polls Tuesday for a special election in LAUSD’s Board District 5, which has been without representation since last summer, when Ref Rodriguez resigned. The runoff between candidates Heather Repenning and Jackie Goldberg could mark a significant shift in the direction of the board.  

Race and Parent Representation

Heather Repenning with her daughter

Heather Repenning with her daughter

While District 5 was specifically drawn according the Voting Rights Act to maximize the possibility of Latino representation, both runoff candidates are white and live in the more gentrified northern part of District 5, which includes Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Eagle Rock. 

Most of the parents in District 5, however, are low-income Latinos, and many of them live in the Southeast part of the district that includes Huntington Park, Cudahy and Maywood, where many schools are struggling. The loss of a Latino representative will mark a significant shift on the Board. 

Repenning, who is backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, does speak fluent Spanish, a top priority of Latino parents in BD5, while Goldberg does not. Goldberg also offended some Latino parents from the Southeast when she asked the board last year to appoint her to the seat without any public input, which parents felt took away their right to help select their representative.

Attack ads from an Independent Expenditure group funded by SEIU Local 99, the union representing LAUSD bus drivers, cafeteria workers and special education aides, also resurfaced a racially insensitive Goldberg quote that ran in the Los Angeles Times when she served on the school board in the late 1980s, in which she suggested that Latino culture was to blame for the high student dropout rates. 

Latino voters in the Southeast brought Huntington Park Councilmember Graciela Ortiz within 31 votes of making the runoff, despite a massive funding disadvantage. While Ortiz subsequently threw her support behind Repenning, it remains to be seen whether Latino turnout in the Southeast will be as strong a factor in the runoff.  

If elected, Repenning would be the only parent of an LAUSD child on the school board. Her child attends her neighborhood school, Ivanhoe, which is 66 percent white with a low-income population of just 11 percent – far lower than the district average. At a candidate forum Thursday night at Gabriella charter school, Repenning described herself as “a voice for all parents, no matter what school your kid is in.

“I’d like L.A. Unified to be able to provide a great neighborhood school for every family,” Repenning said. “We’ve done that in some communities, but we have not done that consistently…It’s very, very important to me that our parents are engaged, that they’re involved in decision-making and that they’re truly at the table.”

Increasing Labor Dominance

While many recent school board elections have been portrayed as a battle between candidates backed by either United Teachers Los Angeles or the California Charter Schools Association, that’s not the case with the BD5 special election. Instead, the major funders have both been labor unions. UTLA is backing Goldberg, while SEIU Local 99 is backing Repenning. CCSA did not endorse either candidate, in part, because neither candidate sought the group’s endorsement.

Regardless of who wins, this election will likely mark an even larger shift on the board toward the dominance of adult employee special interest groups -- potentially making it harder for the superintendent to control district spending as the Los Angeles County Office of Education threatens a takeover. 

If Goldberg is elected, UTLA will regain a solid grip on three board seats with a possible fourth swing vote in Richard Vladovic (BD7), whose power to determine the direction of the board will increase in his final year of service. Vladovic has been a strong supporter of Superintendent Austin Beutner and has generally urged fiscal responsibility. But he abstained on a key vote last year to rein in healthcare costs that are eating up an increasing portion of the budget.

Between the two candidates, Repenning has signaled that she’s most open to reform. At a forum Thursday night, she said she wants to take a “hard look” at the LAUSD budget and is open to examining changes to benefits plans for new hires, while Goldberg is not. 

As for Beutner’s fate, Goldberg spoke out publicly at the board against his hiring and criticized his “lack of transparency” at Thursday’s forum. Repenning also said Beutner “got off to a really rocky start” and has had “big challenges communicating,” but she credited him with settling the UTLA strike fairly quickly. Given that four of the current board members voted to hire Beutner, this election won’t automatically lead to a leadership change at the top of the district unless one of his supporters defects. 

 School Choice and Charters

In the wake of the UTLA strike, the LAUSD board has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward charter schools at the union’s behest. In fact, every single board member except Vice President Nick Melvoin (BD4) voted for a resolution calling on the state to place a moratorium on new charters in LAUSD in order to settle the UTLA strike. 

Both Repenning and Goldberg said they would have voted the same way were they on the board at the time. Both also said at the start of their campaigns that they would reject CCSA money. Given that the former BD5 board member headed a charter school network, this also marks a significant shift. 

Jackie Goldberg

Jackie Goldberg

The two candidates do display differences on this issue, though, both in terms of style and substance. Last year Goldberg accused school board members who had been supported by CCSA of having “sold your soul to the devil.” Goldberg got into a heated exchange with charter parents at a forum earlier this week after suggesting parents who choose charter schools were harming the district. 

Meanwhile, Repenning said at a forum last week that she’d like to attract charter parents back to the district, but she also acknowledged that, “unless LAUSD can provide a great school for every neighborhood, parents are going to look for something else. Parents are going to fight for the best thing for our kids. That’s our job.”  

Repenning also said she rejects rhetoric that scapegoats charter parents for the district’s financial problems, which she attributes more to a bloated bureaucracy. “Charter schools are getting blamed for a lot of problems facing L.A. Unified,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think that’s accurate.”

Goldberg, on the other hand, has spread misinformation about charter schools, calling them “private” instead of public and stating during a recent radio interview (at 22:26 of this video) that charter schools were created in the South in the 1950s as a reaction to school desegregation. In reality, the first charter school law passed in 1991 in Minnesota after the concept was first publicly backed by the head of the American Federation of Teachers union in 1988, according to The New York Times. California passed its first charter school law in 1992.

On the issue of charter co-location, Goldberg said at a forum last week that it “should be avoided,” while Repenning said she wants to be fair “to both sides” and suggested that LAUSD should give the rent money that charters pay to the district school sharing its space to create a benefit for the home school. 

Goldberg also said last Thursday that she supports bills being considered by the state legislature that would create a moratorium on new charter schools and also remove the appeals process when the district denies a charter. The bills could potentially lead to the closure of highly successful charter schools that the district considers financial competition. Repenning, on the other hand, said that a five-year moratorium was “extreme,” but indicated support for more modest reforms to state charter school laws.

The L.A. Times endorsed my campaign and called me an independent voice, which I appreciated because I think that’s what’s needed on our school board right now,” Repenning said at the Thursday forum. “I’m not running to continue the endless wars between the charter association and UTLA. I’m running because I want to be able to really represent the perspective of kids and parents and to bring a fair voice that’s going to take every issue on its merits.”

  

Note: Jackie Goldberg’s campaign manager reached out to Speak UP’s Election Watch to request an interview but then subsequently cancelled the request. Speak UP has not endorsed a candidate in the race.