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‘We need to be heard’ — Graciela Ortíz endorses Repenning as she vows to advocate for Board District 5’s southeast community

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | March 30, 2019

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Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortíz, left, as she announced her endorsement of Heather Repenning on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Michael Pessah / Heather Repenning’s campaign)

*Updated March 31

There were seven Latino candidates in the L.A. Unified school board race for the Board District 5 seat, but Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortíz was the only one who came close to making it into a runoff.

Only 31 votes separated Ortíz from second-place finisher Heather Repenning, but on Wednesday Ortíz announced she would not ask for a recount. On Sunday, she endorsed Repenning.

“This board seat isn’t about what side you’re on. Because all of us need to be on the same side, the side of children. The children in our southeast communities have gone underserved for far too long,” Ortíz said at Sunday’s gathering in Huntington Park.

After thanking Ortíz, Repenning said, “We should put our resources in the communities of greatest needs, and that includes our best people. If elected, I will create a program to incentivize our best teachers, school staff and administrators to sign up to serve students in our most struggling schools.”

In a phone interview Thursday, Ortíz said that whoever wins the seat will need to “fight for equity for all of our schools and to ensure that we have the same resources across the board in all schools within L.A. Unified, for all children.”

The May 14 runoff race will be between Jackie Goldberg — the frontrunner in the primary, a longtime politician and a former District 5 board member — and Repenning, a former mayoral aide. Goldberg won 48.18 percent in the primary — more than three times the votes for Repenning.

Repenning got 13.13 percent in the primary. Ortíz ended in third place with 13.03 percent. Together their votes make up only a little more than half what Goldberg won in the primary.

“I’m planning to get involved in the runoff. I really believe that we do have to have a voice on that board who is going to understand equity,” Ortíz said in the interview. “I’m really proud of the campaign that we ran. It was a team effort. Early on in the campaign, members of the community told me, ‘Graciela esta ya no es solo tu campaña, es de la comunidad’,” Ortíz said, which means, “Graciela, this is no longer only your campaign, but it’s the community’s campaign.”

Ortíz said it was the community’s grassroots efforts, particularly in the southeast, that helped her get so far even though she was being outspent by “a lot” by the other two candidates. Goldberg and Repenning are from the more affluent and whiter northeast section of BD5, as the district is known. Both are backed by the two largest labor unions in the district, which each represent about 30,000 members. Goldberg is the teachers union-backed candidate, and Repenning has the endorsement of SEIU Local 99, which represents non-teaching school employees.

Ortíz had the endorsement of the Los Angeles School Police Association, the Association of Pupil Services and Attendance Counselors and the National Association of Social Workers. Many Latino elected officials from southeast cities also endorsed Ortíz during the primary, including L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo.

“It was about working hard, not giving up, and that’s what we did. We were knocking on doors, making phone calls every single day, doing everything possible to make sure that our community had a voice. And even though we lost, I really feel our voices were heard,” said Ortíz, 38, who is in her 13th year working as a full-time L.A. Unified school counselor, currently at Linda Marquez High School in Huntington Park. She is a member of the local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

“All odds were against us, we were outspent by a lot, millions of dollars were spent on the other candidates, and we didn’t have that kind of money. We were nowhere near,” she said.

Ortíz was the Latino candidate with the most campaign contributions. She raised about $140,000.

Repenning was the primary race’s top fundraiser, receiving about $287,000 in direct contributions to her campaign. SEIU Local 99 spent close to $1 million to elect Repenning in the primary. About $140,000 went toward opposing Goldberg. Charter advocate Eli Broad also gave $100,000 to SEIU Local 99 on Election Day, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Heading into the runoff, Goldberg has spent about $175,000 of the $200,000 she’s received in campaign contributions, according to city ethics commission data last updated on March 5. UTLA has separately poured about $670,000 so far into getting her elected.

Ortíz said she will complete her term as a council member until 2020. She was first elected to the Huntington Park City Council in 2015 and served as mayor in 2016-17, when she voted in favor of a moratorium on new charter schools in Huntington Park which lasted one year.

“This is not the end for me. I’ll continue to advocate for children as I do on a daily basis as a school counselor. I’ll continue to advocate for equity and making sure all of our schools are fully funded and making sure all of our schools are providing quality education,” she said.

“I’m from the community. I have been doing a lot of work for the community for many years. I work in schools on a daily basis. It’s really about having connection within the community, being the voice of individuals who do not necessarily know how to speak for themselves,” Ortíz said. “I believe that it wasn’t just about the campaign. It was a lot of work that many of us have put in for many years for our community.”

Latinos make up almost 90 percent of enrollment in BD5, which has some of the district’s neediest students and the state’s lowest-performing schools, particularly concentrated in the southeast section, which includes Huntington Park, Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate. The northeast section covers more affluent neighborhoods like Eagle Rock, Los Feliz and Silver Lake — where voter turnout has traditionally been higher.

In the last BD5 election when Ref Rodríguez, a Latino, was elected to the seat in 2015, there was a 7 percent voter turnout — about 26,000 people voted — and Latinos represented 55 percent of those who voted in the primary and runoff elections.

Ortíz credits the support of southeast voters for going as far as she did in the race. “Believe it or not, we’re able to pull out a lot of votes in the southeast.” But she added, “We have to do a better job in organizing all voters, and that they do come out and vote, period. We need to vote, we need to pull up the vote. We need to make sure that our Latino voters understand that their voice does matter and their voice does count.”

Ortíz expressed not being “fully concerned” about not having a Latino in the BD5 seat. “Whoever becomes the next board member, I’m looking forward to working with any of them in ensuring that we have quality education in all of our communities.”

In the last 24 years, only two Latinos have occupied the seat. Rodríguez was elected in 2015 and Yolie Flores in 2007. Flores completed her four-year term and Rodríguez resigned after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges in July. One month later, the school board approved a special election to replace him.

District 5 has the second-highest concentration of Latino students in all L.A. Unified, and some of them have parents whose immigrant status make them ineligible to vote.

Ortíz’s parents are immigrants from Mexico. Her father died when she was 6 months old, so her mother had to raise her and her three siblings as a single mom in Huntington Park, where Ortíz grew up going to L.A. Unified schools.

“I think It’s really important to have individuals running who understand undocumented communities. This is definitely one of the communities I represent now. I don’t know what laws would have to pass, but what I do know is that, on my campaign trail, on my team, it’s about representing anyone equally, whether undocumented or not, every single family.”

She said some members of her campaign are undocumented. “Whether it was volunteering or just spreading the word, that’s important for me, that everyone is on board, providing that platform and that opportunity for everyone to have that voice.”

Ortíz said this is a critical time for BD5 and for L.A. Unified as a whole because of the “redesign and the restructuring of the district and how it’s going to operate.”

L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner indicated last year that he plans to transfer authority from the district’s central office and put it into the schools’ communities, though he has not yet formally introduced the plan. The Los Angeles Times reported that Beutner’s plan includes dividing the district into 32 neighborhood “networks.”

“There are many changes coming up within the district right now, where we’re going to have local control, so we need to make sure that when the restructuring of the district rolls out, that the needs of all students are being met,” Ortíz said.

“Many times, opportunities are just not there, just like when I was growing up. Fifty percent of my friends didn’t graduate from high school,” she said. “What we learned from our life experiences is that many times we have to work 100 times harder. That’s what we did, that’s what we do.”

Ortíz graduated from UCLA and has a master’s degree in social work from California State University, Long Beach. She was the first in her family to go to college.

In the years since she was an L.A. Unified student, many things have improved in the schools, she said, like overcrowding or “different tracks” for students, such as those who have access to the college-prep A-G courses. She said “early intervention” and providing the “right tools” for college readiness are still needed in the district.

“Just because I’m not in the runoff doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to fight for what’s best for the kids and to hold those conversations with whoever is elected. We need to be heard, not just during election times, to express our concerns and to fight for our students’ voice.”

*This article has been updated with Sunday’s official announcement of Ortíz’s endorsement.

• For more on the BD5 race:

Latinos are the vast majority in LAUSD’s Board District 5. But they likely won’t be the ones who elect their next school board member. Here’s why.

More money, more charter school scrutiny: Here’s what Jackie Goldberg wants to bring to LAUSD in her bid to rejoin the school board after nearly 30 years

Heather Repenning enters the school board runoff vowing to address the need ‘to write a new chapter of change at LAUSD’

New survey shows big differences in how English- and Spanish-speakers view their schools in LAUSD’s Board District 5

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