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Kayser, his 2 challengers keep it civil in first forum together

Vanessa Romo | February 6, 2015

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Ref Rodriguez(L),

Ref Rodriguez(L), Andrew Thomas (C) and LAUSD board member Bennett Kayser


After days of tension leading to the first debate with all three candidates running for LA Unified’s board District 5 on March 3, a forum last night at Eagle Rock High School played out with a relatively civil tone and a focus more on policy than politics.

Surprisingly, incumbent Bennett Kayser, who is strongly supported by the teachers union, UTLA; challenger Ref Rodriguez, a charter school executive who is backed by reformers; and Andrew Thomas, who calls himself an independent, found plenty of common ground in discussing their respective vision for the future of the school board and LA Unified students.

But the two-hour debate before a crowd estimated at about 200 also produced fault lines among the three, including their views on standardized testing and the expansion of charter schools.

While all agreed that high stakes testing can be at best, an inaccurate measure of how much students have learned, and at worst, detrimental to “meaningful understanding,” Rodriguez was alone in calling for the elimination of statewide testing, a radical suggestion in that statewide testing is mandated by the federal government.

“As far as I’m concerned, get rid of state standardized testing,” Rodriguez told the crowd. “Growth over time is really what we should be looking at and studying.”

Thomas argued that testing provides an important measure for helping determine a student’s areas of need.

While Rodriguez called for approving more charter schools, Kayser and Thomas said the board needs to stem the recent explosion of charters and to study their effectiveness.

But Rodriguez also advocated for closing poorly performing charter schools. “We could close down 20 percent of the charter schools tomorrow,” he said. “The district has the power to do so…and we should let the district do its job.”

When Kayser reminded Rodriguez that he voted to revoke the charter of two Aspire charter schools late last year after the schools refused to join the district special education plan, a decision the district has the autonomy to make, Rodriguez called it “morally reprehensible.”

Kayser spent part of the time blaming former Superintendent John Deasy for some of the ills affecting the district, including the need to spend more than $100 million to address problems with MiSiS, the new student data tracking system. Kayser told the audience he warned Deasy not to proceed with the system, that “it’s going to be a disaster.”

“He didn’t listen,” Kayser said. “He went forward anyway.”

Rodriguez turned the issue against Kayser, insisting that the school board is responsible for decisions of that magnitude. “They are the ones in charge of our budget,” he said.

Thomas expanded the point, saying that computer experts, not school districts as large as LA Unified, should be developing software that’s so critical to school operations. He said it was long past the time the board had to “invent everything themselves.”

On other issues, the candidates found more common ground. They agreed that the district needs more teachers and that all teachers deserve raises and need more support. They favor smaller class sizes, and they said the board should approve and develop more magnet schools as well as dual immersion programs to help them compete against charter schools.

And perhaps with Deasy more in mind than his interim replacement, Ramon Cortines, they agreed that the superintendent hired to succeed Cortines should be a collaborative consensus builder.

The overall emphasis on policy almost made events of the previous week forgotten.

There was no mention of Cancelgate, when last week’s scheduled forum sponsored by United Way-Los Angeles became a one-man show for Rodriguez after Kayser and Thomas pulled out. According to his staff, Kayser bailed a day before the event because of “a scheduling conflict,” which led Thomas to cancel, saying that it wouldn’t be a true debate unless all three were in attendance.

Speculation grew that Kayser pulled out because he feared the crowd would be predominantly pro-reform/anti-union, a hurdle made even more difficult to surmount by his Parkinson’s disease, which sometimes causes him to shake uncontrollably.

Nor did anyone bring up the controversial mailer that accused Kayser of supporting policies that harmed Latino students. The flyer was paid for by the California Charter Schools Association, which has endorsed Rodriguez.

The candidates are expected to gather again for three more debates — Feb. 10, Feb. 11 and Feb. 18 — with one exception. The first of them is sponsored by United Way, and Kayser has already informed organizers he has another “scheduling conflict.”


* Corrects reference to two schools Kayser voted to close. They are Aspire schools, not Alliance.


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