With Richard Vladovic taking over as president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board during his final year in office, the board has an opportunity to forge a middle-ground path toward stabilizing LAUSD finances and lifting student achievement at low-performing schools.
Vladovic (BD7) has long been considered a swing vote on the board, sometimes siding with education reformers and sometimes with union activists, who joined forces this spring to campaign for Measure EE in hopes of bringing more revenue to LAUSD.
Given the failure of Measure EE at the ballot box, Vladovic is taking the helm of the board at a challenging time. The district is expected to lay off employees in August in an attempt to balance its budget and satisfy county overseers, who have complained about the district’s deficit spending and $12 billion unfunded retiree healthcare liabilities.
Vladovic told the board he hopes to bring employee labor unions to the table to discuss ways to fix things, and he struck a conciliatory tone. “I don’t want to talk about cuts,” he said. “We’re going to talk about finding the money.”
In his first action as board president, Vladovic appointed Jackie Goldberg (BD5) vice president of the board, which means she will oversee a committee focused on the budget, auditing and facilities. That appointment comes despite the fact that the two of them sharply disagreed over the hiring of Superintendent Austin Beutner, whom Vladovic supported and Goldberg opposed.
Goldberg and Vladovic also have very different views about the state of district finances. Goldberg has echoed UTLA’s contention that LAUSD’s financial woes are overblown, while Vladovic repeatedly warned last year that the district could go “belly up.”
Vladovic has urged employee unions to come to the table to reform healthcare benefits by raising retirement eligibility age, moving employees to a single health plan or requiring a monthly contribution for health insurance. He also abstained from voting on a $3.3 billion employee healthcare package last year and complained that a committee of parents and labor unions charged with exploring healthcare cost savings, which emerged from that deal, failed to meet for nearly a year.
The district’s failure to significantly rein in retiree healthcare costs was a factor in the failure of Measure EE, which Speak UP campaigned to pass. The opposition campaign highlighted the fact that the board – at the behest of employee unions – removed a provision preventing the funds raised from being used to cover retiree pension and healthcare liabilities, prompting many voters to express doubt that the money would ever make its way to the classroom.
Vladovic and Goldberg also disagree on issues of equity. Vladovic often argues that low-income schools deserve to receive a greater share of funding based on higher needs and their inability to generate the level of parent fundraising dollars seen at wealthier schools.
Goldberg, on the other hand, argued at the June 18 board meeting that LAUSD should consider returning to an old funding formula that directed more money to some schools without a majority of low-income kids. Goldberg’s base of support comes from the wealthier, gentrifying northern portion of BD5 such as Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz and Eagle Rock.
One of the ways Vladovic wants to right LAUSD’s financial ship – and something he and Goldberg agree on – is to increase enrollment by stemming the loss of students to independent charter schools. Independent charters currently account for only a small portion of LAUSD’s large annual enrollment loss, while demographic changes such as lower birth rates and higher housing costs are a much bigger factor.
Nevertheless, Vladovic is creating a committee to try to convince would-be independent charter schools to become district-affiliated charters instead. LAUSD keeps and controls the funding for affiliated charters, unlike independent charters, which control their own finances and have more freedom over staffing.
Lifting Student Achievement
Aside from district finances, Vladovic said his top priority was to lift student achievement. “We made promises to our children we didn’t keep,” he said. “We had plans for our lowest performing youngsters, who can perform at the highest level, and we let them down.”
Vladovic told Speak UP that he is working with Beutner on a pilot program in his board district, which spans from South Los Angeles to San Pedro. They will focus on empowering principals at 15 elementary and middle schools and experimenting with different instructional intervention techniques and resource allocation that will be tested for efficacy. They plan to pour efforts into lower grades and middle schools such as Samuel Gompers because by high school, it’s often too late. “It’s triage,” he said.
He also expressed a desire to streamline board meetings and focus more on improving education for kids. “Our primary mission is to set policies that raise student achievement,” he told reporters after the board meeting. “We haven’t spent as much time on that. That’s our mission -- to change lives of kids. Instead of celebrating, we should be figuring out ways that we’re going to ensure more are successful.”
Vladovic proposed to do that by creating multiple committees to handle policy issues before they come to the full board and to reduce the number of board meetings focused on charter school approvals. He pointed out that the board almost always accepts the recommendations of the Charter Schools Division on charter school approvals, and he wants to stop spending so much board time on such routine administrative matters, which he called a political “Kabuki dance.”
“I’ve got to try to change the focus away from politicizing who we’re going to approve for charters. Really focus on how we’re going to do better by our children,” he said. “We could be more productive for children, and I’m frustrated.”
Vladovic wants board member resolutions to go through the committee structure before coming to the full board, and he suggested each board member chair a committee.
Goldberg will chair the Committee of the Whole and focus on budget and facilities. Board Member George McKenna (BD1) will chair a committee on curriculum and instruction. Monica Garcia (BD2) will chair a committee on school safety. Scott Schmerelson (BD3) will chair a committee on special education and parent engagement. Nick Melvoin (BD4) will chair a committee on information technology, data analysis and uniform enrollment. Kelly Gonez (BD6) will chair a committee on government relations and early education. And Vladovic will handle the affiliated charter committee.
Vladovic also encouraged parents having issues at their schools to work them out with district staff behind the scenes rather than airing concerns at televised board meetings. Parents often come to the board as a last resort after failing to see issues resolved at their schools and local districts, but Vladovic prefers those issues be handled out of the public eye. “Either you want to be on TV or you want to solve your problem,” he said.
A New Board Majority
The Vladovic-Goldberg board leadership team represents a notable shift from the Garcia-Melvoin era, both in terms of age, ethnicity, ideology and political allegiances. Garcia and Melvoin were both strong reformers, and Garcia was allied with the SEIU labor union, which represents LAUSD bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors, many of whom are also parents of color.
Melvoin nominated Garcia to remain as board president, but Garcia acknowledged she did not have the votes and supported Vladovic.
“There is a new majority,” she said. “These folks who are seasoned veterans, if they can move us faster, I’m all for it… It’s hard to be on the school board because you have to pay attention to who is not being served well. Making L.A. Unified great again, you have to ask for who and how long?”
Garcia challenged the board to put kids’ needs above the needs of adults and to focus on the urgency of helping the district’s neediest students. “The hardest thing we have to do is not find money but find courage,” Garcia said. “Do we believe all kids can learn? Yes or no? Do we believe it’s a civil right to read and write and get to graduation?”
While we’re all outraged by immigrant kids being held in cages at the border, “you’ve got to know that if you’re poor and you don’t know how read or write, there’s another cage that has ben constructed around you,” Garcia said.
Acknowledging the shift from a Latina board president to two white leaders, Vladovic attempted to make his first remarks to the board in Spanish and to reassure Latino families that their kids will be safe in Los Angeles schools. “You don’t have to fear anybody coming to ask about your children,” he said.
The board then promptly passed resolutions condemning the Trump administration’s proposal to restrict federal housing assistance by immigration status and supporting a state bill that would prohibit schools from suspending students for willful defiance, which disproportionately affects students of color.