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All signs point to Ref Rodriguez as LAUSD’s next school board president

Mike Szymanski | May 22, 2017

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Ref Rodriguez

With a new majority coming to the LA Unified school board, one of the first tasks will be to select the next board president, and all signs point to relative newcomer Ref Rodriguez taking over the top spot.

The position is largely ceremonial, but it puts a face on the second-largest school district in the nation. The seven elected board members choose a new president each year, a process that in the past has come with much speculation. This year’s vote will happen in July when the new board is seated.

Rodriguez is a co-founder of PUC Schools, a network of independent public charter schools in Los Angeles, who was elected in 2015 as a pro-reform candidate, ousting union-backed Bennett Kayser. Steve Zimmer, who was voted out of office last week, has held the president’s position for the past two years, and Richard Vladovic held the position before that.

With last week’s election of Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, the board now has a 4-3 pro-reform majority.

Pro-reform board member Mónica García, who was elected to her final term in March, is also the longest-serving board president, having served six years in the position since she was first elected in 2006. García said she wasn’t interested in serving as president again.

“There are new people and there is new energy on the board, and I am sure they will help move us forward,” García said. “I welcome the new folks, and I have been part of many different boards with many different strategies and I hope to communicate my concerns and work toward strategies for success.”

In the past, García has served on a majority pro-reform board, but not since 2010.

“The conversation for a board chairman is important, but we have a couple of weeks to think about it,” García said.

There have been precedents for newcomers to be elected president. In 1999, Genethia Hayes was voted in by fellow board members as president when she was first elected.

Gonez and Melvoin said they’re not interested in the president’s spot yet.

“There will be plenty of time to think about board politics and the internal workings of the district, and I’ll address that after I’m sworn in,” Melvoin said. “Right now, I’m focused on how best to serve the kids and families of my district and across Los Angeles. But improving the way board meetings are run is definitely on the agenda.”

An unwritten tradition has been that school board members will let their fellow board members know of their interest in the president’s position, usually through other community organizations. So far, that lobbying hasn’t been going on, according to some of the board members.

Rodriguez said that he hasn’t lobbied for the president’s position but said, “I’m happy to serve if my colleagues think I can help move the district forward. I have been on the board for two years, and I am new to the process, but the bottom line is, if I can help to move things forward, I will be there.”

Rodriguez said he has thought about ways of streamlining the day-long, once-a-month board meetings.

“I think we can have a quicker and more compact agenda,” Rodriguez said. “And the public comments need to be more streamlined, it is very confusing for people who come to our meetings.”

He added, “I have told Steve that I learned from him and his sensibility of openness and willingness to listen. He would check in with me if he knew there was something coming up that I may be personally against, and he was looking out for me.”

In his two years on the school board, Rodriguez has championed middle school education and early education. He is chairman of the Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement Committee and vice chairman of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Educational Equity Committee. He also serves on the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee.

Vladovic chaired the Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee for the past two years with Rodriguez as his vice chair and said, “I like Ref, I like him as a human being. We’ve worked together well and I think he’s a real child advocate.”

But, Vladovic said he hasn’t yet focused on the race for board president, and said that although he has served in the past, there’s not to prevent him (or García) from running for it again. “But I’m not thinking of that, I’m not thinking of the politics,” Vladovic said. “My priority is dealing with a fiscal crisis we’re going to face in two years.”

Outgoing board member Mónica Ratliff said she thought that Rodriguez or current vice president George McKenna would both be good presidents. Vice presidents don’t necessarily move up to the top spot, although most recently Zimmer served as vice president to Vladovic for two years before being named president. McKenna hasn’t expressed interest in the position.

“People were afraid of Dr. Rodriguez when he first came on and thought he was this big reformer who was going to change things,” Ratliff said. “But people see that once you are on the board they are measured and reasonable people, and Ref has certainly proven to be that way.”

Ratliff added, “Personally, I think that Dr. McKenna or Dr. Rodriguez as president would be wonderful. … Steve Zimmer has a really good heart and showed that he cares deeply for children and you and fighting for equity, and he led the board through a difficult time of choosing a new superintendent,” Ratliff said. “Whoever takes on the position of president will have a tough job.”

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