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STEM school vote highlights LAUSD divisions as resolution against a state-run school fails

Mike Szymanski | August 22, 2017

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George McKenna defends his resolution.

A controversial resolution condemning a legislative proposal to start a STEM school in Los Angeles that would be outside LA Unified’s control failed after a heated debate Tuesday.

The first school board meeting of the new year was supposed to display board President Ref Rodriguez’s “Kid’s First” agenda. A new help desk was set up to greet parents at the entrance to the board auditorium. Students kicked off the meeting with stories of success at their schools. And a new student school board member was sworn in.

But the biggest chunk of the meeting — a full hour and a half — was devoted to discussing a new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) school that would serve about 800 students in Los Angeles County in sixth- through 12th-grades.

Ref Rodriguez takes over as president.

As much as Rodriguez hoped to show a unified board, the vote fell along the divisive lines of pro-reform and pro-labor factions. The resolution failed to pass, with the four pro-reform members succeeding in defeating it.  

New board member Nick Melvoin expressed frustration over the time spent on the resolution. “We have spent so much time on a political proxy fight, and I hope to spend more time on student space and actually doing the people’s business,” he said.

AB 1217 was proposed by state Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, and Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to support the legislation.

Because LA Unified would not have control over the school that would inevitably take students out of the district, and thus the state funds that follow them, board member Scott Schmerelson co-wrote the resolution with George McKenna, asking for the district to oppose the legislation.

“We will have our children in that school and we will have no oversight of this school,” Schmerelson said. “We should have the most authority, and we will have none. The public has entrusted us, and there is no transparency with that school. We have nothing to say about it no matter what they do.”

A primary offense, stated by the resolution’s authors as well as Superintendent Michelle King, was that the idea that the district can’t do a STEM school properly. She said her team tried to meet a few times with the authors of the bill to understand the reason why they proposed the school, and she wasn’t satisfied with any of the answers.

Kelly Gonez tried to add a friendly amendment.

“It seemed like an uncomfortable set-up, like we are not doing something at LAUSD, and we do have high-performing STEM schools,” King said. “It’s fine that they wanted to start another school, but to say it’s because LAUSD does not have that, that is the narrative I was concerned about.” King rattled off the independent charters, affiliated charters, magnets, pilots and girls and boys schools that have a STEM focus. She said the district and the LA County Office of Education should also be involved. “I’m still not satisfied and I’m not in support of this assembly bill,” King said.

“There is circular logic here,” said McKenna, who co-wrote the resolution. “We are saying we have wonderful schools in the district but there are other places to send our kids to.”

McKenna warned that state legislation like AB 1217 is only the first of bills to come that will usurp the district’s authority. “This will not be the first and only attempt to do this.”

The ideological debate included discussion of who the school board actually was voted to serve, and who pays their salary, which jumped from $45,627 to $125,000 this year.

“We were elected to serve the interests of the LA Unified school district,” McKenna said.

“I was elected to represent the people,” said Mònica García, the longest sitting board member.

Melvoin said, “I was elected to serve all kids in all schools, not just to protect an institution.” He added, “This is an example of divisive politics.”

Melvoin said the argument “rehashes the same disputes” and said the resolution is “symbolic” and the board could be spending time on more important issues. But he did say he wished the state politicians “had more faith in us” when they came up with the idea of the STEM school in LA Unified’s neighborhood.

Board member Kelly Gonez said she talked to the legislators proposing the school and said she had concerns about accountability and transparency. But she also said the McKenna-Schmerelson resolution was “more hostile than it needs to be.”

Gonez drafted a friendly amendment that essentially re-wrote McKenna and Schmerelson’s resolution and suggested the board express concerns about how the school could better fit into the area, but not oppose it.

None of the other board members even seconded Gonez’s amendment, and it died without being discussed.

Board member Richard Vladovic said he believed in choices for students but suggested it was “plain-out fraud if the state wants to start running schools, they should then change the law. It’s our responsibility, they should allow us to have the money, even authorize it for a charter if they want.”

Student board member Benjamin Holtzman.

Student board member Benjamin Holtzman said he supported the resolution because of a paragraph in the resolution that suggested it could result in property tax increases, which he said would only hurt people in poverty.

But Rodriguez, who spoke only when he was about to cast the final and decisive vote that ended up defeating the resolution, told Holtzman that he had asked for data or reports on any tax implications, but none could be found.

Holtzman’s vote doesn’t count as an official vote, but he was registered as supporting the resolution, as did McKenna, Schmerelson, and Vladovic. Rodriguez voted against it, as did Garcia, Gonez, and Melvoin. So, LA Unified has no official stance for or against the new school.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed AB 1217 in a “suspense file” on Monday after determining the bill would cost about $286,000 to implement. That places the bill on hold until the costs are minimized.


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