Tempers flare at LAUSD school board — ‘I feel disenfranchised,’ one board member says
Mike Szymanski | October 10, 2017
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It was college appreciation day Tuesday at the LA Unified school board, so all the board members wore their school shirts. But they may as well have worn their football jerseys because it erupted into a verbal brawl.
In a few seemingly innocuous votes involving committee meetings, two board members not part of the new pro-reform majority let loose their frustrations.
“I don’t feel like it’s worth coming to the meetings anymore, it’s like talking to the air,” said longtime board member Richard Vladovic before the final votes were cast. “We are being railroaded. It’s uncomfortable coming to the meetings because my votes don’t count. You got four votes on everything, and I just don’t agree.”
The disagreements prolonged the meeting by more than an hour and centered on who would represent the district on a state board and whether committees should give way to shorter-term ad hoc groups. But at their heart they were about the 4-3 split and the voice of the minority members on the seven-member board.
The longest exchanges were between Vladovic and Mónica García, who took over as board president after Ref Rodriguez relinquished the post last month because he is facing felony campaign violations. Vladovic ran unsuccessfully against García for the post, and both have served as president before. Since last spring’s election of two pro-reform board members, Vladovic and board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson are for the first time in the minority.
“I’m just concerned where the district is going,” McKenna said. “Working together takes leadership, and that does not mean dictatorship.”
The heated argument was over newcomer Kelly Gonez being elected to the state California School Boards Association Board of Directors as well as the Council of Great City Schools, a national organization of the largest urban public schools that deals with federal education issues.
“I’ll be honest and kind of blunt, but I don’t know what she’s going to advocate for,” McKenna said. “I know there’s a 4-3 majority for broader expansion of charter schools, and I’m not an enemy of charter schools, but I’m not an advocate, and if someone goes there as a representative of the board I want to know what they’ll represent.” The four members of the majority were elected with the backing of charter school supporters.
Gonez assured McKenna that she could multi-task and has worked since age 16, often holding three jobs at a time. She said she would “make it a priority to attend all meetings and give written and oral updates.” She also said she wanted to promote the UTLA teacher union goal of getting an allocation of $20,000 per student by 2020. (California ranks 22nd in per pupil spending at $11,330 in 2016.) “I am excited to take on the work,” she said, vowing to “solicit feedback and reflect the entirety of the board.”
Schmerelson and McKenna joined Vladovic in voting against her.
“I could have told you that,” Vladovic said when she won the 4-3 vote. “I feel disenfranchised and that we are not part of this. You go on doing what you’re going to do, this isn’t cool.”
García reminded Vladovic of the days when she was on the losing end of 6-1 and 5-2 votes since she first got elected in 2006. “I welcome this conversation, and these feelings are real and political change is rough,” García said. “I have always said that being on this board is like a forced marriage.”
After the meeting, García noted that she wanted her fellow board members to have all the information they need to do their jobs, but that no predetermined backroom deals were being made by the majority.
She also said that it’s not necessarily the board president’s responsibility to make everyone feel good. “Vulnerability is good and expressing opinions and feelings informs the whole, and as board president I have to conduct the meetings and make sure things go smoothly.”
Garcia added, “Absent of the alignment perspective of certain board members, I have the responsibility to do our work and make sure the board members have the information they need to do our work.”
McKenna was surprised that the next Committee of the Whole meeting was being planned at Fairfax High School next week, to spread meetings around throughout the district. “I had something planned here (at the Beaudry headquarters), and now we’re bounding all over. How much more work will we get done? You make us go and move and want the rest of us to follow you around. I don’t follow.”
Vladovic and McKenna said they wouldn’t attend the Committee of the Whole meetings, which they are not required to do, because they feel so far removed.
Melvoin tried to play mediator and pointed out that 90 percent of the votes the board takes are unanimous and on consent.
Vladovic shot that down and said, “Those are marshmallow issues, and that’s the way I feel and I also feel my input is not valued.”
Michael Trujillo, who worked on Vladovic’s three campaigns and was his spokesman during Vladovic’s two years as board president, said Vladovic cares about the process of the board.
“Dr. Vladovic cares about ensuring best practices to our students and he knows the value of committees,” said Trujillo, who also worked on Gonez’s and Melvoin’s campaigns. “This board won’t always be unanimous, but it is good to have a healthy debate about issues when it involves children’s educations.”
Late Tuesday night, García said the school district was preparing to issue a statement about the board moving to “continue in a positive direction for all our children” that would be based in part on Tuesday’s “robust” discussion.