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Meet the candidates in LAUSD school board runoffs: Maria Brenes runs as outsider who can spark change for Eastside neighborhoods

Bryan Sarabia | November 3, 2022



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As two LAUSD school board races headed to runoffs in Tuesday’s election, LA School Report interviewed the four candidates vying for the seats. Here is an interview with Maria Brenes, who is running to represent school district 2 against Rocio Rivas:

Maria Brenes / innercitystruggle.org

Running as an outsider to represent predominantly low income families living in the Eastside neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Maria Brenes is determined to change what it means to be an LAUSD school board member for District 2. 

Brenes, a Harvard University graduate and executive director of Inner City Struggle, said her work with the non-profit is proof she can do a better job at sparking change than her opponent Dr. Rocio Rivas, a research and policy deputy for a sitting LAUSD board member.  

 “I have a track record of getting things done for my community and tackling some of the biggest issues that have faced LAUSD,” Brenes told LA School Report, “helping initiate actual systemic change that has made LAUSD a more equitable and responsive district.”

Brenes discussed her plans to address the major challenges LAUSD faces including funding school police, mental health supports, enrollment decline and more in an interview with LA School Report: 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve lived in District 2 for 20 years and you send your children to LAUSD schools. How are you, as a member of this community fit to represent it?

I have been a resident of the current boundaries of Board District 2 for over twenty years now…. My relationship with LAUSD is that of an outsider; being an advocate from the outside by pushing LAUSD to be more responsive and equitable to eastside communities…  Where I live education is a vehicle for upward mobility, for dismantling the school to prison pipeline, for interrupting and dismantling poverty…, Eastside students are mostly low income and many come from immigrant families…and its role as a safety net in our neighborhoods, that are facing so many challenges with housing instability.

With the recent L.A. City Hall scandal, it is evident that having people of color represent you in government does not guarantee equity to you as a constituent. What will you do to address the needs of ALL students, regardless of race and class?

I think the [what was said] in the audio leak is just shameful! I was angry, hurt and enraged, and ashamed because those were Latinx leaders that were representing our communities and the anti-Black, anti-Indigenous comments they made completely go against the values I stand for. Los Angeles is a multi-racial city and county and we have been fighting so hard to make progress and to build inclusive communities and inclusive schools. 

I had received the endorsement of Nury Martinez and Kevin de Leon prior to that day. The same day the article broke, I put out a statement denouncing, disassociating, and calling for their resignation. 

…I’m the only candidate that has this track record of building multiracial alliances…I’m out there picketing with my comrades, my multi racial allies, and my coalition, saying this is the moment for us to speak up and call for better policies and better representation. 

In an interview with LAist, you said “[LAUSD] ​​needs to continue to invest and redirect resources from surveillance and punishment to support holistic wraparound services” when asked about school police. What specific services do you have in mind? 

I’m the only candidate that has actually done anything in this race around dismantling the school to jail pipeline…First, the school to prison pipeline was an urgent issue for Inner City Struggle…, because we were the organization to uncover there were very high suspension rates in eastside schools compared to schools in more affluent areas, and it correlated with low graduation and low college going rates…. 

I’ve been at the table, helping formulate the Black Student Achievement Plan, which is now a hundred million dollars in investing in culturally relevant approaches, strategy, and social emotional learning in schools with a higher concentration of Black students. 

I’m the only candidate between the two of us that actually has a track record, has actually demonstrated solidarity with young people who have these harmful experiences, and have sometimes been told by some Board members that their truth does not matter. That’s very painful, and I will be a board member that validates, listens and takes their voices into account.

You have made many verbal commitments to students and families of LAUSD, but what about teachers? You were not endorsed by UTLA. What will you do to support teachers within the school district to keep them from leaving?

I have supported educators of LAUSD for many years. I hold them in such high esteem. LAUSD educators teach and nurture my own two children, so I’m very grateful for the work that educators do… especially in these times, with so many more challenges being exacerbated by the pandemic. I also support, and I think the public needs to support education workers as well. They’re an essential part of our school communities whether it’s an instructional aid, a teacher’s assistant, a special education assistant, a custodian, a cafeteria worker or a bus driver. They are often overlooked.

Well, I know you have the endorsements of non-educators, of labor unions, but not UTLA, LA’s largest teacher’s union. Can you tell me that you will grant the requests teachers are demanding, such as higher wages, reduced workloads and better work environments?

Yes and education workers as well. They’re valuable and their workforce is the majority. These are people of color who send their kids to LAUSD and they need stronger benefits. I am an ally to both and I do have support from LAUSD educators. You’re welcome to look at my website to see the list. These are relationships I have cultivated over the years through my work in the community. 

Enrollment decline is an urgent issue for LAUSD at the moment and you’ve said you wanted to mitigate this by focusing on middle schools. How exactly will you revamp middle schools? What are some examples of this? 

In terms of middle school, I have found that some families that I have met…are looking for more personalized environments, more stem academies, magnets, pilot school, and small learning communities. Middle school is such a critical time in the social emotional development of our students and investing more creates more options and more personalized learning. The environment, I think, is important, for District 2. One of the gaps I see is there is not enough access to K-8 models. That was something I was in search of for my own child as he entered seventh grade.

…We urgently need a state of emergency when it comes to enrollment in attendance. So many of our families were affected by COVID-19. So many families are facing issues of being on the brink of homelessness… They have not returned, and for some of our youngest, that’s where we’re seeing the greatest challenges with enrollment in attendance. So the two to me are interlinked: chronic absenteeism and enrollment. I want to declare a state of emergency for Board District 2 so that the superintendent deploys resources accordingly. 

Both Dr. Rivas and yourself agree that mental health issues in the district are important. What are your plans to address mental health?

I’m the only candidate that has a track record of doing work as it relates to mental health services. I’m proud to have pushed LAUSD to make a $50 million commitment to build 24 new wellness centers in some of our highest need schools throughout. We conducted a survey in Boyle Heights and East LA and found that depression and anxiety were issues of high importance to students. Using that student voice, we decided to push for the construction of these wellness centers. These locations are to provide comprehensive services, including mental health, dental services, primary care and reproductive services. That’s the model we need and it’s going to be accessible to students and the community.

The LA Times and La Opinion endorsed you, but UTLA did not. Why do you think UTLA endorsed Dr. Rivas over yourself? Why are you more qualified than Dr. Rivas? Why isn’t Dr. Rivas qualified? 

I am more qualified than Dr. Rocio Rivas because I have a track record of getting things done for my community and tackling some of the biggest issues that have faced LAUSD…helping initiate actual systemic change that has made LAUSD a more equitable and responsive district. That’s a big part of why in East LA we have seen better outcomes, higher graduation rates, and higher college going rates. 

Dr. Rocio Rivas does not have a track record of influencing systemic change for communities in Board District 2. She does not. I have an education. I went to UC Berkeley, I went to Harvard and got my masters in education. But that is only meaningful if I give back to my community… 

If elected, do you see your position on the LAUSD as a continuation of your work at Inner City Struggle, or will you take it as a new initiative, a new chapter in your dedication to serve East LA and the surrounding communities?

I have been an organizer since I was 17 years old. At that time, there was a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in California. Our communities were criminalized, our families were criminalized. I’m so proud to have been part of a generation that rejected criminalization and othering, and said, ‘No, this is our state. Our families have helped build this state, and we have a stake in it, and we’re going to reclaim it.’

This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

Bryan Sarabia is a junior at the University of Southern California, originally from Houston, Texas. He is majoring in journalism and Spanish.

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