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Kelly Gonez will trade the classroom for the boardroom as she jumps full time into work to ‘change lives’

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 1, 2017

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Kelly Gonez celebrating her lead with a group of mothers on election night.

At just 28, Kelly Gonez has gone from being an education policy adviser for the Obama administration to middle school math teacher to the youngest member of the LA Unified school board.

She won the May 16 runoff for the District 6 seat with less than 1,000 votes, obtaining 16,961 votes, or 51.5 percent, to Imelda Padilla’s 15,996 votes, or 48.5 percent, final results show.

Now Gonez will be in charge of representing more than 93,000 students from the east San Fernando Valley, 87 percent of them Latinos. Eighty-six percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. That responsibility is making her feel “excited and nervous” at the same time.

“I am overwhelmed by the support I received from the community. It’s very moving,” she said almost in tears of emotion on election night as she watched results. She credited much of her success to parents. “It’s now when the true work begins for these families and their children. It is an extremely important job, with a great responsibility. Education can change lives, and I take that very seriously.”

Gonez plans to serve full time on the board. Currently, only three of the board’s seven members work full time. Nick Melvoin, who will represent District 4 after defeating board President Steve Zimmer in the runoff, will also serve full time. Gonez said she and her husband, Manuel, whom she married last August, will wait to start a family so she can focus only on fulfilling her campaign promises.

“I think if I dedicate myself to this full time I can get better, at least for the first two years. Eventually, I plan to return to teaching in the classroom,” she said.

“My main goal is that we can deliver high-quality education to all students so they can graduate from our schools, but in particular the most vulnerable, including English Learners, those in the foster system, and the undocumented, so they can be college and career ready.”

Gonez will close out the school year this month at Crown Preparatory Academy, where she teaches seventh-grade science, then take her place on the board in July, replacing Mónica Ratliff, who left her District 6 seat for an unsuccessful run for City Council.

She plans to respond as quickly as possible to one of the biggest concerns among parents in her district. “The complaint I heard the most in the community was that they feel the district does not listen to their voice in the decision-making process, especially about the budget and how the resources get allocated.”

Gonez intends to make the district more accessible for parents by suggesting that the meetings be rotated, having a more flexible schedule for the local district office, and holding regular meetings with community members.

“I want to explore the rotation of the board meetings so that Valley families can find more easy to attend the meeting, and even provide transportation if possible so that parents can be physically present at the downtown ones.”

Gonez also wants to make technology more useful for parents.

“I think it’s a resource that has not been taken advantage of. I think the district should have a better site with information that can actually be useful and easier to access mainly on mobile electronic devices. Some families do not have access to computers, but they do have a smartphone,” she said.

She is interested in having parents interact with the district through text messaging and social networking.

She also plans to fight for extracurricular programs including art and music or second-language immersion programs, as well as teacher participation in decisions within and outside the classroom.

“As a teacher, I know that teachers need to be more valued and respected for the great professional work they do, to have good compensation, and to have a real voice in their schools and at the district level. They should have a leadership role in their schools,” she said.

Gonez, who has a bachelor’s in political science and history from UC Berkeley and a master’s in urban education from Loyola Marymount University, said that being a part of a political campaign is difficult, but being the candidate was a major challenge.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but it was much more than I expected. Especially working full time as a teacher. But at the same time it was more rewarding than I thought. I feel it was a privilege to visit people’s homes and listen to their stories. Despite the differences, all of us have more in common, things we agree on the many opportunities that we have to improve the children’s education. It was energizing hearing so much from them.”

However, she acknowledged that the negativity of the campaign left her exhausted. The worst part, she said, was opponents associating her with President Trump’s policies, which she opposes. This spring’s LA Unified school board races were the most expensive in U.S. history, totaling nearly $17 million.

“As a Democrat working for President Obama, as a Latina, and as an immigrant’s daughter, being associated with Donald Trump was very difficult and caused a lot of division. I think in general the election caused a lot of unnecessary division. Negativity was the worst part.”

Gonez’s mother is a Peruvian immigrant. On election night, she recognized her parents for their support, as well as her husband, volunteers, parents, and some of her students and former students.

Kelly Gonez with her husband and her parents on election night.

“I have to thank the people in the community who supported me and my former students who found time every weekend since January to knock on doors, to my husband and to the parents of the community who dedicated hours and hours to transmit my message for the last nine months,” she said at Magaly’s Tamales, a restaurant in San Fernando where she watched the results joined by her family and nearly 100 supporters from all backgrounds and ages.

In addition, she thanked a group of mothers who were a key part of the success of the campaign, most of them immigrants and some who may be undocumented and unable to vote but could help get the word out to others to vote in her favor.

“Those mothers reminded me of my own mother. We had an instant connection because they are similar to my mother. She is also an immigrant like them and I am a first-generation American as well as their children, and my mom also worked hard for me to have a good education.”

Gonez said on election night: Those families are “the reason why I’m doing this.”

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