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Ref Rodriguez is elected LAUSD board president and wins near-unanimous support for his ‘kids first’ resolution

Mike Szymanski | July 6, 2017

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Ref Rodriguez (center) with his District 5 staff just after being named school board president.

The new members of the LA Unified school board were inducted Thursday, and the board’s first votes — on who would be their leader — broke along expected lines. The pro-reform majority exercised its muscle, voting 4-3 to elect as their president Ref Rodriguez, the co-founder one of LA’s largest charter school organizations.

But immediately after that, a more unified board was on display when Rodriguez’s resolution declaring LA Unified “a district that puts kids first” passed 6-1.

Together, the votes revealed the power of the new majority but also showed that the unity Rodriguez called for was attainable.

In two sets of votes on the presidency, new members Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez joined Mónica García in supporting Rodriguez. Three incumbents — who have spoken of charter schools as threats to the district and who were elected with teacher union support — voted for Richard Vladovic, who had previously served as president. All three also cast votes against Rodriguez’s presidency.

• Find out more about the new school board members in an interactive graphic that breaks down their diverse backgrounds.

Vladovic was nominated by Scott Schmerelson, who beat pro-reform candidate Tamar Galatzan two years ago when Rodriguez unseated union-backed Bennett Kayser. In the vote for president, Vladovic was supported by George McKenna, the board’s previous vice president. The vote on Vladovic was up first and was rejected by the four pro-reform board members.

“I wouldn’t read too much into this first vote, it’s not necessarily an indication of what’s yet to come,” Vladovic told LA School Report as the board was heading into its first closed session. “I am just philosophically opposed to the way this board has been operating with resolutions, and I will keep making my point over and over again until they let the superintendent do her job.”

Before the individual votes for Rodriguez and Vladovic were cast, Gonez asked that each of the candidates make their case for president. Vladovic, who had previously served as superintendent for another school district, as had McKenna, said that he didn’t like the way board members at LA Unified set out resolutions for the superintendent to follow, rather than letting Michelle King do her job.

“We should stop running the district by resolution, and we need the superintendent to do her job and hold her to it, and if I became president I would call out people who bring up resolutions,” Vladovic said. “I feel very sternly about that, you need the superintendent to do her job and you hold her accountable.”

Vladovic said the district is heading toward “tumultuous times” and said he could “provide the support the superintendent will need.”

King has often sought out the advice of the board to make decisions, but many directions to her have come through resolutions, like García’s resolution at last month’s meeting on redistributing federal Title I money to schools with the most disadvantaged students.

Rodriguez said during the meeting that he always appreciated Vladovic’s advice. In a conference call for media later in the day, he said of the three who voted against his presidency, “I don’t want them to see me as aligned with three other people that don’t include them.” He added, “I don’t see them as anti-charter.”

He also said he wanted the school board meetings to take less time and that he is considering “chunking meetings” together and having two a month instead of one long one, “to make the business of the people go much faster.” He said he might break off the charter school hearings for days and times that parents would be able to attend.

He remarked that he was noted for not saying much during meetings but said, “I was listening and learning to constituents and colleagues.” He added, “We have to be a better version of ourselves on the board.”

Rodriguez, who is also a past principal, voiced his support for labor unions as he noted the upcoming contract negotiations.

Rodriguez and Vladovic sit next to each other during the induction ceremony of the new board members.

“I truly believe we can get to 100 percent graduation, and I have no doubt about being able to make them all college-ready,” he said. “This board can do it. I want to be your captain.”

Saying it was “for the children,” García voted for Rodriguez. Gonez said she liked what he said about “bringing us all together.”

“I have no doubt that Ref will do a good job,” Vladovic said.

But despite voting against Rodriguez as president, Vladovic supported him on the resolution because he said that the superintendent was well on her way to doing what the resolution called for anyway. The resolution passed 6-1 with only McKenna opposed. Gonez, Melvoin, and García all voted for it and asked to be added as co-sponsors, something Melvoin said he just learned he could do.

One of the requirements in the resolution — called the “Los Angeles Unified Learning, Leading, and Succeeding for Students” resolution — calls on the superintendent to develop a “Student Impact Statement” for every item that comes before the board, particularly for how each item will impact low-income students, English learners, foster youth, African-Americans, and special education students.

The resolution aims for 100 percent of the district’s parents to sign up by the end of the 2018-19 school year for the LAUSD Parent Access Support System Portal (PASSport), which shows how a student is progressing and what requirements are needed to graduate. The resolution also calls for the creation of a $20 million philanthropically supported fund to provide high-quality and teacher-led professional development to improve outcomes in literacy, math, and science.

McKenna said he thought that dollar figure was arbitrary but said, “I am a strong believer that when you pay attention to those of greatest needs, immediately everybody benefits and it helps everyone.”

In the afternoon media call, Rodriguez said the resolution “was a great opportunity to move things forward” and “helps the board to make sure we are talking about kids at our meetings.” He said he wanted to “connect for the public” how the board’s actions impact children and student achievement outcomes.

He added, “It’s about setting the table for what’s coming ahead. It will show how things affect children, and we will tackle fiscal stability head on.”

Rodriguez blamed the media for creating divisiveness among the board and said, “Every time I read anything about the board we always hear how we are anti-charter and pro-charter and are a divided board. … Things are so much more complicated than that. Charters are part of the portfolio of many schools we have.”

He added, “It’s about high quality for all kids, not one way of doing schools. We need to create a bar and make sure that we all rise up to it.”

Rodriguez asked García to be vice president and appointed all the other board members to be LAUSD representatives for other boards. McKenna declined his appointment to the California School Board Association, which meets in December.

In closed session, the school board agreed to authorize settlement negotiations in a case supported by the ACLU, the Community Coalition vs. LAUSD. The case accuses the district of violating state law by not properly using Local Control Funding Formula money that’s targeted to low-income, English learners and foster youth. The board agreed unanimously to settle the case, and the settlement deal will be made public.

Although he said he couldn’t talk about the details, Rodriguez said, “I personally wanted to move forward with this and focus on important things we have on our agenda and want some closure here.”

Rodriguez is not the first openly gay school board president. Jeff Horton was elected in 1991 and came out after he was on the board, and Jackie Goldberg served as president of the board during her term on the board.

“It is important for me to be public about my sexuality and my husband and my family and their acceptance of me,” Rodriguez said on the media call. “I want to be a model for young people and show that, whether you are gay or Latino or anything, you can accomplish anything with pride.”

His parents attended Thursday’s meeting and also visited his Beaudry headquarters office for the first time, which he said deeply impacted his mother.

“Imagine, this is a woman who was a peanut farmer in Mexico. Her son is sitting here making decisions about 700,000 kids and affecting their lives,” Rodriguez said. “She was moved — and I was moved by seeing her moved.”

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