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Kayser, Rodriguez, Thomas make closing arguments for themselves

Vanessa Romo | February 27, 2015

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Bennett Kasyer (L), Andrew Thomas and Ref Rodriguez at last night's District 5 candidate forum

Bennett Kayser (L), Andrew Thomas and Ref Rodriguez at last night’s LA Unified District 5 candidate forum

Together for the final time before Tuesday’s elections, the three candidates for LA Unified’s Board District 5 seat were determined last night to set themselves apart from each other.

In a small church in a residential neighborhood in South Gate, incumbent Bennett Kayser, and his opponents, Andrew Thomas and Ref Rodriguez, spoke only to the small crowd, rarely acknowledging the others’ statements or accusations. Another forum is scheduled for tonight at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, Sandra Cisneros campus in Echo Park, but only Thomas and Rodriguez have agreed to participate.

In last night’s forum, Thomas sharply criticized his opponents for the financial support their respective campaigns have received from outside interests, either the teachers union, UTLA, (Kayser) or the California Charter Schools Association (Rodriguez). Thomas’s campaign has received no outside support.

“The interests that have put people on the school board have spent over a million dollars so far beating each other up,” Thomas told the audience of about 30 southeast LA residents. “And they’re going to continue that fight onto the board when they’re elected.”

Later in the debate he returned to the same theme, arguing “The priorities of the other two candidates are not the same as the priorities of people who are funding their campaigns.”

Thomas also accused Kayser of supporting inefficient spending of new state money available to the district. Looking ahead at future growth, Thomas said, “I’m worried that money is going to be frittered away on programs that already exist and aren’t very effective.”

Kayser’s attacks were primarily directed at charter school advocates, easily interpreted as attacks on Rodriguez, who founded a network of charter schools in northeast LA and the San Fernando Valley.

“The time for charter schools has pretty much passed,” Kayser said, adding that the district can not afford to approve charters at the current rate for much longer. “We will go bankrupt.”

He also promised to “undo Prop 39” if reelected, citing a voter-approved measure that included a provision allowing charter schools to take over empty classroom space in traditional public school campuses.

“They tricked us into that land grab,” he said. Kayser admitted he, too, was bamboozled, voting in favor of the proposition.

While they all agreed that the iPads-for-all program was an utter debacle, differences emerged on the role of technology in schools.

“Our kids need to be able to learn with technology and through technology,” Rodriguez said. He added that the district is at least partially responsible for bridging the digital divide between rich and poor communities and insisted that the district’s current moratorium on buying new devices should be reversed. He also called computers the “new text books.”

Thomas disputed the dire imperative to include the “shiny objects” in every day teaching. “I don’t think computers are what are students need,” he said. Students need great math and science instruction, he explained. “It’s not about the tools, it’s the skills they’re learning.”

Kayser repeated his assertion that he never voted to approve the iPad program “because the superintendent [John Deasy] never had a plan.” In one 2014 resolution before the board Kayser voted to approve iPads for testing purposes as well as others for instructional use.

They also took different tacks discussing special education. Kayser accused charter schools of shirking their responsibility to students with special needs, often dumping them back into the traditional public school system because they don’t have resources to serve them.

Thomas said school principals are too overwhelmed to develop Independent Education Plans for special needs students. The solution is to hire more assistant principals. And Rodriguez, said charter schools refusing to enroll special needs students should be shut down.


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