In-coming LAUSD board members getting their priorities in order
Vanessa Romo | June 30, 2015
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Ref Rodriguez is in the market for new friends. Specifically, friends on the LA Unified school board, which he’ll officially join tomorrow for a five-year term ending in 2020.
“I know I need to build some relationships with certain communities that may not trust me because of the campaign,” he told LA School Report.
He and the other 2015 board election winners — Scott Schmerelson, George McKenna and Richard Vladovic — will be sworn in at a special ceremony tomorrow, prior to a board meeting to select a board president.
Rodriguez, who trounced Bennett Kayser in the District 5 race, has been accused of being behind one of the nastiest campaigns for a school board seat in LAUSD history. Neighborhoods across the city, from Highland Park down to South Gate, were papered with fliers accusing Kayser of racism and opposing good schools for Latino children. Others intentionally misrepresented Kayser’s voting record on the district’s iPad deal.
And while Rodriguez has always insisted that his team had no involvement with negative ads paid for by the California Charter Schools Association, he now concedes that it’s weighing heavily on his mind as he thinks about the year ahead.
“There is a lot of repair that I have to do and I plan to do that in my first year,” he said, adding that some of that work has already started. Rodriguez had lunch with Steve Zimmer last week, a small gesture that represents a willingness of both men to move past the election and things said over those heated months.
Zimmer “damned” the Rodriguez campaign for its politicking at a Kayser rally then went on to say here that, “If there ever was a relationship there with Rodriguez, it has been seriously damaged.”
Rodriguez said another of his priorities is taking an active role in finding a replacement for Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who unexpectedly announced he plans on leaving the temporary post in six months.
Rodriguez is critical of the district’s track record in selecting a new leader.
“It hasn’t been inclusive,” he said. This time around, he says it’s imperative “to ensure that the public feels like they’re a part of the process. And not just at the end, when we’re down to the final three candidates.” Stakeholders should be weighing in along the way, he said.
Finally, there is the middle school cause, which he shares with Schmerelson, who beat out Tamar Galatzan in District 3.
Both Rodriguez and Schmerelson say they hope to launch programs to reach struggling students in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.
“That’s where you can reach them and do the most good to make sure they don’t become [high school] drop outs,” Schmerelson, a former teacher, counselor and principal told LA School Report.
For Schmerelson some of that help should take the shape of after school programs, extra tutoring time and tough love.
“We need to end social promotion,” he said, getting riled up. Schmerelson explains that it is not totally unusual for a child to be held back in the elementary school for years but teachers and counselors are “strongly discouraged” from recommending that a student should repeat a grade in middle school.
“Many kids are not ready for high school and we are just fooling them, setting them up for failure when they get there,” he said.
It is one of the reasons that graduation rate projections are so low for the more rigorous A to G standards, according to Schmerelson. “Kids don’t understand that once you get to high school you don’t get moved up from class to class because your friends are moving on. You have to earn the credits.”
Schmerelson’s other “lofty goal” is changing federal regulations around school meals, which he says are set up to produce vast amounts of waste.
Elementary school students in the cafeteria line have two choices: take everything on the menu or nothing at all. There is no picking and choosing which means if a second grade girl is only interested in the Salisbury steak and wants to skip the mac ’n’ cheese, she has to get a full plate and throw away what she leaves untouched.
“That makes absolutely no sense but because of federal funding those are the rules and everyone has to follow them,” said an exasperated Schmerelson, who as a principal stood by and watched as tons of healthy and edible food was tossed into the garbage. Young children should have the same privileges as secondary school kids who can “grab and go,” he said.
Unlike Rodriguez, Schmerelson says he won’t need to work to get people on his side.
“I am the easiest person to get along with you’ve ever seen in your whole life,” he said, attributing his easy-goingness to his years of experience as a school principal.
“Sometimes parents are a little difficult and sometimes teachers are a little difficult so sometimes, you just have to listen, keep you mouth shut and be respectful,” he said. “That’s my MO.”
* Clarifies that Rodriguez’s campaign had nothing to do with campaign ads paid for by the California Charter Schools Association. An earlier version left that ambiguous.