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Candidates play it safe, respectful at first — only? — District 7 debate

Craig Clough | February 9, 2015

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District 7 debate

Moderator Fernando Guerra and LAUSD board District 7 candidates (from L) Euna Anderson, Lydia Gutierrez and Richard Vladovic. (Credit: Tamea A.)

The candidates in the first — and what looks like only — LA Unified board District 7 debate played it safe and respectful at the Granada Theater in Wilmington on Friday night.

While differences did emerge between incumbent board President Richard Vladovic and his challengers, Lydia Gutierrez and Euna Anderson, the candidates refrained from criticizing the others’ policies and views, sticking mostly to their own positions to influence voters in the March 3 elections.

When the issue of money came up, as it often did, Vladovic reminded the crowd of almost 600 that the district gets its money from the state and that one of his top priorities is to convince the legislature to increase the education budget.

“We are 49th in all of the states in educational funding per pupil, when you account for economies and so forth,” he said. “We are not spending the same amount of money that New York or Rhode Island spends, they spend twice as much as us. So we need to focus on insuring that the state puts us as a bigger priority.”

Gutierrez was the most aggressive of the three, even choosing to stand every time she spoke. But she levied her criticisms and barbs more at the district rather than tying them to Vladovic’s leadership of the board. In response to Vladovic’s comments on state money, she scored perhaps the biggest hit of the night by reminding the crowd of the $139 million payout to victims of the Miramonte child abuse scandal and the problematic MiSiS computer system, which has cost the district tens of millions of dollars to fix.

“To continue to misuse funds, but then say we need more money, we have to establish where that money is going first,” she said.

Gutierrez also made the most mistakes and seemed to lack an overall knowledge of details.

On the topic of LA Unified teacher salaries, she twice said they had not received a raise in 10 years, when it’s actually closer to seven. She also criticized the district for spending $1.3 billion for iPads while saying there wasn’t enough money for teacher raises, ignoring the fact that the controversial iPads-for-all program was paid for with bond money that cannot go toward teacher salaries.

While not referring to Gutierrez directly, Vladovic did point out the mistakes in his response to some questions.

On the subject of teacher salaries, one of the most vital issues facing the district as the possibility of a strike looms, Anderson said she supported a raise for teachers, but declined to say how much. Vladovic said he was limited in what he could say because he was part of the collective bargaining process but conceded that he supports a raise higher than four percent, one of the district’s recent offers before raising it to five percent.

Judging from cheers and reactions, not a lot of minds were changed throughout the night. Vladovic, as the high-profile incumbent, had the most vocal support. Gutierrez, a teacher in the Long Beach Unified system who received almost a million votes in November in her run for the state superintendent of public instruction, had a smaller but vocal group behind her. Anderson, a LAUSD early ed principal and relative unknown, received the least applause to her answers.

Like the candidates, the crowd remained respectful, with not a single boo heard through the whole debate.

Anderson stuck to her promise to stay positive and did not criticize Vladovic. She also stuck to her promise to make early education a priority and repeatedly referred to early ed in her answers, but she did not outline any grand vision or direction that might have swung more of the crowd into her corner.

On the polarizing issue of former Superintendent John Deasy, who resigned in October, Anderson declined to comment at all. Vladovic was equally tight-lipped, saying that “he was respected and did a good job, and I don’t talk about people behind their back.” Gutierrez did comment, criticizing Deasy for the iPad fiasco.

On the polarizing topic of charter schools, the candidates’ answers revealed the complexity of the issue.

Gutierrez stated she is against them, saying, “You have to have a failure to have a charter, and I dare not have a failing school.” Her answer again revealed only a partial understanding of the issue, as not all charter schools spring out of a failed school, but some start up completely new. She also did not express an understanding of the limitations the LA Unified school board has in dealing with charters.

Vladovic pointed out that the board is required by law to approve charter schools as long as they are funded correctly and have a sound educational system. He said that “charter school students are my students also,” and that, “If you are going to ask me if I agree or disagree, that’s immaterial, because it’s the state law.”

Anderson used the charter topic to levy one of her few major criticisms at the district. She said that her grandson attends a charter school and does very well there. “Why do parents leave LAUSD?” she asked. “The answer is in the trust factor, the lack of transparency and oversight. Issues like the iPad and the MiSiS incident, they have people not trusting LAUSD.”

Vladovic conveyed the best knowledge of details and often referred to individual policies and resolutions he had supported, including restorative justice, efforts to lower class size, working with state leaders to secure more funding, efforts to save wasted cafeteria food, anti-bullying programs and others. However, he didn’t talk much about any future resolutions to fix the district’s ills, and when asked if he had a “magic wand” to change anything about the district, he again repeated his desire for more state funding.

Overall, it was a surprisingly civil debate, considering it is the only one scheduled for District 7. Those who came hoping for a knockout blow, or for one candidate to seriously stumble did not get it.

Several attendees who came undecided left undecided.

“I heard every question, so now it’s just me taking it all back and thinking maybe this is better, or maybe this person might be good or maybe we could implement more of this,” said LAUSD student Beatrice Garcia, who is 18 and a first-time voter.

Rayna Ciuc, an LAUSD parent, was also uncertain.

“I’m open minded right now. I don’t have a candidate preference,” she said. “I would like the candidates to focus a lot more on the students because they need support.”

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