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Friction starts to show in latest LA Unified district 5 board debate

Vanessa Romo | February 19, 2015

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LAUSD District 5 school board candidates Andrew Thomas (L) and Ref Rodriguez

LAUSD District 5 school board candidates Andrew Thomas (L) and Ref Rodriguez

No more Mr. Nice Guys.

Last night’s forum for the three candidates in the LA Unified District 5 board race included lots of head shaking, some eye rolling, silently mouthing words (“That’s not true”) and at least one tiff.

Perhaps some of the frustration was due to changing rules. Initially there was no time set aside for rebuttals. Then there was. Then there wasn’t. Or, it could be that it was the third of these debates, with all three present, and it’s likely most voters who are going to cast ballots in what surely will be a low-turn out election on March 3 have already mailed in their choices. Either way, tempers flared on the Mt. Washington Elementary School stage, before 70 or so local residents.

The unease also came in the wake of an on-going battle of attack ads foisted on voters by groups supporting the incumbent, Bennett Kayser, and one of his challengers, Ref Rodriguez, a charter school founder. They have been characterized as racist, nasty and in the case of the latest effort equating Kayser to a movie villain of two decades ago, just plain odd.

Time was a factor, too. Unlike last week’s debate that drone on form three hours, this one was nip and tuck, barely more than an hour.

The first clash last night arose from a discussion about physical education, during which Rodriguez accused the district of doing a poor job of providing quality PE for youngsters. There’s so much focus on testing, he said, “that we don’t value holistic education.”

In a previous debate Rodriguez declared he’d like to abolish all state-wide and federally mandated testing. As for the schools run by Rodriguez, at least one — PUC CALS Charter Middle School — offers PE twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays. Elementary students at PUC Milagro Charter School get it three days per week.

Kayser took exception to Rodriguez’s criticisms, arguing that often schools are limited in the types of activities they can offer when forced to share campus space with charters under California’s Prop 39 co-location laws.

“We can’t remove bungalows” located on what were once open spaces “if a charter school wants the room,” Kayser explained.

“That’s not true,” Rodriguez mouthed and repeated it aloud, interrupting Kayser. “That’s just not true,” he said.

Kayser’s response: “Don’t tell me I’m wrong about that.”

Andrew Thomas, who has avoided the slings of the others’ supporters, also got into it with Kayser over a question on parent engagement, one of Thomas’ key talking points. Thomas introduces himself as a the only parent of LA Unified students in the race and a candidate not beholden to outside interests. He argues that Kayser’s ties to the teachers union and Rodriguez’s to corporations behind charter schools prevent them from making decisions based purely on what’s best for students.

Thomas said many parents say they feel unwelcome and unwanted by school administrators who look upon them as disruptions to the daily routine. Kayser said district policy requires school administrators to welcome parents on campus and into classrooms.

“Mr. Kayser just said he disagrees with me because the policy is to open doors,” Thomas said. “I think this is a great example of the difference between what schools look like from the top, when you’re reading the policy on paper, and what schools feel like to kids and parents inside the schools.”

Thomas also attacked Kayser for his record on voting against the approval or renewal of charter school applications. While he conceded there are serious issues about managing charter schools, Thomas said, “To vote on principal or ideology to close a parent’s school, it’s beyond the pale for me.”

The debate continues next week, for what is likely to be the final debate for the District 5 candidates, in South Gate on Feb 26.

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