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In debate, Kayser and his District 5 challengers agree on very little

Vanessa Romo | February 12, 2015

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LAUSD District 5 candidates (from left) Andrew Thomas, Ref Rodriguez and Bennet Kayser

LAUSD District 5 candidates (from left) Andrew Thomas, Ref Rodriguez and Bennett Kayser

Incumbent Bennett Kayser appeared spoiling for a fight last night, sharing the stage with his two challengers for the LA Unified District 5 board seat at a candidate forum in El Sereno.

Right out of the gate, he goaded PUC charter school founder Ref Rodriguez and education researcher Andrew Thomas to state their positions on Prop 39, a state law that allows charter schools to take over empty classrooms at traditional public schools. Kayser, who usually votes against all charter schools, is adamantly against the law.

The answers he got helped illustrate some of the differences between him and the two candidates seeking to prevent his winning a second term on the board. As one of three contested races in the March 3 elections, District 5 is one that carries huge important for the teachers union, which regards Kayser as its strongest ally on the board.

Prop 39 has disrupted life at many of the district’s schools where parents and administrators of the charter and traditional schools have been unable to share a campus amicably, in one case, leading to fist fights at parent engagement meetings.

It is a typically divisive issue for parents that elicits strong reactions regardless of what side they’re on. While Kayser’s voice has been a constant in opposing the law, his opponents’ view were less unequivocal.

Thomas flat out admitted he doesn’t know much about the law and didn’t really pick a side. As a charter school operator, Rodriguez might have defended Prop 39  but he said PUC schools have opted against taking advantage of it.

“We’ve been offered spaces at Franklin (High School), and I’ve said no because Franklin needs the space,” he said. “Because this is my community, I know what’s going on and I don’t want to encroach on our schools.”

However, Rodriguez did not say he’s against it, only that it sometimes leads to community tensions. Additionally, he said, the district is doing a poor job of counting the available spaces on campus.

The forum was hosted by LA-32 Neighborhood Council. It lasted three hours and attracted only about 25 people in the audience, who got to ask questions and, in the case of some, act unruly. A cluster of Rodriguez supporters sitting near the front let out a collective groan any time Kayser spoke.

On a question about Ethnic Studies, Kayser seized the opportunity to boast of his role in getting it passed as a high school graduation requirement, saying “It’s been by far the most popular program that’s been discussed by parent groups and community groups since I’ve been on the school board.”

He was criticized for that as Rodriguez called it another example of an empty district policy that “puts the cart before the horse,” adding, “Policies get passed without any funding and no feed back mechanisms.”

Thomas piled on, calling it a failed policy causing more harm than good.  “When you introduce a new graduation requirement, the first question is what are we giving up?” he said. Students cannot afford to give up valuable class time for subjects that aren’t helping to improve other essential skills, he argued.

As the only candidate of the three with children currently enrolled in an LA Unified school, Thomas pounded his opponents for being out of touch with what is happening in classrooms. In the absence of “the voice of a parent on the board, that’s how decisions can be made that don’t help kids.”

After Kayser pointed out that his sons had attended district schools and he’s now a grandfather, Thomas retorted, “My father is a parent right now, but he doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Rodriguez and Kayser battled over the impact of charter schools on the district while Thomas seemed to back down from his previous position that he would seek to curb charter school expansion.

“The district needs to do a better job of learning to contract” in the face of shrinking enrollment due to charter school growth, Rodriguez said. He also said he resents the fact that Kayser and other board member think of the money attached to individual students as the district’s money, whereas “I think of it as the kid’s money.”

Teacher tenure was another issue that set Kayser apart from this challengers, even though it’s an issue settled by the state, not individual school districts. Kayser defended the idea of tenure in its current form, less than two years, and the protections that it provides teachers. But Thomas and Rodriguez said tenure is given too quickly.

“Sixteen months is too short,” Rodriguez said, and Thomas agreed. But, where Rodriguez implied that it’s nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher, Thomas suggested school principals make it seem harder than it really is to terminate a bad teacher.


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