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Your Ultra Last-Minute Voter Guide to the LAUSD School Board: Who Is Pro Covid Vaccine and Who Isn’t?

8:40 AM PDT on June 7, 2022

    If you’ve ever sat through a school board meeting anywhere, you know how tedious and super bureaucratic they can be. So why would you want to be a school board member, and why are millions of dollars being pumped into our school board elections? 

    Because many people want to control what goes on at the second-largest school district in the country, its almost 575,000 students, 73% of whom are Latino, and its $20 billion budget. There are charter schools and their wealthy backers and there are some people who want to make some money and diminish the teacher’s union’s power and influence. Others want to support or continue cutting the LAUSD Police Department’s budget. 

    Others want to see the district spend more money on setting up mental and emotional health counselors, programs, and resources for students or continue to work on programs to make up for student learning loss over distant, online learning during the pandemic. And many people just want to rant and rave against the COVID-19 vaccine and the district's mandate that staff has to get vaccinated, like everything involving political power in L.A. The school board is small, with only seven board members representing 575,000 students and their parents, so every seat on the board is a big deal. Let’s meet the candidates.      

    District 2:

    District 2 includes downtown, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Los Feliz, and East L.A.

    The current board member for the district, Monica Garcia, reached her term limits and can’t run again, so this seat is wide open. 

    Maria Brenes is our first candidate for District 2. Brenes is the director of InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit on the Eastside that advocates for better education and health services. On her website, she says she was politicized by Proposition 187, a voter-passed law in the 90s that banned undocumented people from using public services, like public schools. A series of restraining orders halted the bill’s implementation days after it went into law, and in 1997 the bill was ultimately found to be unconstitutional. Before all that, though, Brenes said that her family became targets of the racist and anti-immigrant atmosphere worked up by the proposition. At the age of 17, she started organizing kids and families of immigrants to protest against the bill. She says she wants to expand early childhood education programs in the district and support unhoused and English language learning students. Brenes doesn’t fit in with the pro-charter schools or pro-teachers union camps that many LAUSD board candidates align themselves with (and their respective donors). InnerCity Struggle is a part of a coalition called the Equity Alliance that agrees with the teachers union on some things, like downsizing the school police, improving technology at schools, and racial justice initiatives, but disagrees with them regarding the need for standardized tests for students. The union thinks there should be fewer tests. Equity Alliance believes there should be tests to measure student performance. Maria Garcia, the outgoing board member, was affiliated with Equity Alliance. 

    Fun donor facts: Maria Garcia, the Service Employees International Union Local 99 IE PAC,  and Edythe Broad, who, along with her husband Eli Broad, are significant investors in the local charter school movement, all donated to Brenes’ campaign. 

    Rocío Rivas works for District 5 board member Jackie Goldberg, researching and advising her on charter school, early education, dual language, and arts education policy. Working for Goldberg, the staunchest and toughest ally of UTLA, United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union, she has the union's endorsement. Rivas wants smaller class sizes, green spaces for students on school campuses, more mental health workers on campuses, and full spending on special education programs. She’s also against charter “co-locating” in schools, where public schools are legally obligated to give up classrooms and space to charter schools. Rivas also wants to revoke charter schools' licenses to operate if they don’t repay their debts to the district for renting classrooms and other facilities. 

    Fun donor facts: UTLA donated to Rivas’ campaign, as did many LAUSD teachers.

    Miguel Angel Segura is a substitute teacher at LAUSD. He’s held several different positions in several various campaigns. Most notably, he used to be the director of community engagement for former school board members and president of the board, Ref Rodriquez. Rodriquez was a significant figure in the local charter school movement. He was the co-founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter schools, and he led a charter-friendly majority on the school board in 2017, but shortly after he took over the presidency of the board, he pleaded guilty to a felony for organizing a money-laundering scheme using his campaign for office. Anyways, Segura wants to increase mental health support for students and families, advocate for more state and federal funding for schools, “connect schools to economy-responsive sectors (What?),” and “establish financial capacity-building workshops for families.”

    Fun donor facts: Chris Copolillo, the managing director of the California Charter Schools Association, donated to Segura’s campaign. 

    Last but not least, Erica Vilardi-Espinosa, the education rep and treasure of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council and a former contestant on the reality TV show The Rebel Billionaire Branson’s Quest for The Best, is also running for this seat. Vilardi-Espinosa wants more healthy lunches in schools and smaller class sizes with students learning stress and coping techniques. She says she also supports school police. She told LAist that she would like to see “low-enrolled” schools “combined” with each other and older school buildings should be turned into “sports complexes or homeless youth housing, LAUSD staff housing, after-school tutoring centers, or career and technical education campuses.”      

    Fun donor facts: The L.A. School Police Management Association PAC, David Ryu, and filmmaker Patty Jenkins all have donated to Vilardi-Espinosa’s campaign.        

    District 4:

    District 4 runs from the westside and includes neighborhoods like Venice, Westchester, and West Hollywood and includes parts of the San Fernando Valley like Encino, Topanga, and Woodland Hills.

    Our first candidate for District 4 is Gentille Barkhordarian, an electrical engineer who is against COVID vaccine and mask mandates. Barkhordian says the district's insistence on a more extended, remote, online-only education during the pre-vaccine COVID times and the subsequent mask mandate led parents to pull their kids from the district and allowed UTLA to boost their pay and avoid teacher evaluations unfairly. She says she wants to increase mental health resources in the district and deal with learning loss from the pandemic, but she wants to do it mainly by having parents volunteer more as tutors and mentors in the district. She’d also like to strengthen parent committees that meet with school board members. She’s also a big supporter of campus cops. She’s been interviewed on One America News about her campaign, an ultra-right-wing media network.

    Fun donor facts: Barkhordarian doesn’t seem to have any donations to her campaign.

    Nick Melvoin is the current board member for District 4, and he’s running again this year. Melvoin first got on the school board back in 2017, one of the most heavily funded LAUSD elections in history, as a pro-charter school guy. Melvoin went through the Teach For America program, which puts fresh out of college grads in charge of teaching classrooms after a brief training period. TFA argues that it’s putting much-needed educators into schools that need teachers. Critics say that the program puts untrained teachers into schools that require highly trained teachers and that the program is used to hire non-unionized teachers. 

    Melvoin then worked as a second language teacher at Edwin Markham Middle School in Watts. Critics allege that Melvoin has been too deferential to the needs and wants of charter schools. He says he wants to direct more money into schools to improve curriculum and support systems that specifically ensure that Black and disabled students succeed, change the funding formula for schools so that schools themselves have more control of their budget, and get funding based on student need, get more teachers and administrators of color hired in the district, reduce class sizes, and keep campus cops to patrol outside of the school and deal with external safety issues to students, not be involved in policing behavioral issues students have.

    Fun donor facts: Norman Lear, the Service Employees International Union Local 99 Independent Expenditure PAC, and the Los Angeles Charter Advocates for Great Public Schools all donated to Melvoin’s campaign.          

    LAUSD teacher Tracy Schroeder is your final District 4 candidate, and she too is not a big fan of the district COVID vaccine mandates. She says she wants “robust” salaries and benefits packages offered to LAUSD teachers and staff to retain people and attract new hires, but she also wants the district to drop its COVID vaccine mandate if staff have religious or medical exemptions and to allow those teachers back into the classroom, and voluntary vaccinations for students. Schroeder used to work as a second and third-grade teacher at Hesby Leadership Charter, but she now works at Virtual Academy, the district's online-only school. She also says she supports funding the district’s police force. She also wants to make sure school board meetings are rescheduled for times when parents and teachers can attend and participate in them. She also opposes new parcel taxes and opposes new construction bonds. She does want charter schools using public school campuses to “reimburse the district at market rates” for their use of public school facilities. 

    Fun donor facts: Schroeder doesn’t seem to have any donors to her campaign.

    District 6:

    District 6 includes a vast swath of the San Fernando Valley and neighborhoods like North Hollywood, Sylmar, Verdugo Hills, and Sun Valley.   

    Jess Arana is our first candidate for District 6. Arana is a wrestling coach in the San Fernando Valley and a sergeant in the LAUSD’s police department. Like many people this election cycle, he is opposed to both the COVID vaccine and mask mandates. He also says he wants the district to take a “customer service approach” to declining enrollment by providing more technical training and certificate programs for LAUSD students while increasing teacher pay and giving teachers more control over how school budgets are spent. He’s also a big fan of school cops and thinks they should be part of the “family” that helps students.  

    Fun donor facts: Arana has collected a lot of donations from law enforcement unions across the country, including The Long Beach and SF Police Officer’s Associations gave him, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs State PAC, the Riverside Sheriffs' Association Public Education Fund, the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association PAC, the Los Angeles School Police Association, the L.A. School Police Management Association Pac, the CA Coalition of School Safety Professionals PAC,  the Corona Police Officers Association Political Action Committee, and the Union City Police Officers Association. A bunch of LAUSD cops donated to Arana’s campaign as well.   

    Kelly Gonez is the current school board member for this district and the president of the school board. Gonez was elected in 2017 with the wave of pro-charter school candidates, but she’s mellowed out a little bit. So much so that the UTLA is endorsing her and donating to her campaign this year. During her time on the board, she increased the number of dual-language programs in the East Valley and got more advanced placement classes at schools in her district. She says she wants to work on the district's plan to create universal preschool education, focus on early education, increase college and career readiness programs, and work on equity issues.    

    Fun donor facts: Gonez has an exciting roster of donors, including the UTLA PAC, Amy McIntosh, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education in New York, Edyth Broad, and Megan Chernin, the co-founder of L.A. Promise Fund. 

    Marvin A. Rodríguez is a Spanish teacher at Cleveland High School and our final candidate for this district. Rodriquez said he taught in a charter school for a bit and decided that working conditions and oversight of charter schools are not only not too good, but that they redirect necessary resources schools and students need. On his website, he says, “We resist privatization efforts in our schools that want to choose winners and losers. We cannot allow privatizers to continue to weaponize charter schools to undermine our public education system by creating conditions, which force our schools to compete for funding and resources,” and “We cannot allow these efforts into our communities under the guise of philanthropy only to leave behind the costs and risks associated with their failed capitalist ventures for our communities to deal with.” 

    He says that the school board should resist and push back on cutbacks to education in general. His ideas are to create “community schools” where students can access “wrap-around” services and support that are not only academic in nature but also social and emotional. He also wants to be able to fully invest and fund early education programs and special education centers. He says he also believes in a 20% raise for LAUSD staff and that police shouldn’t be on campus.   

    Fun donor facts: Rodriquez gave himself a good chunk of his own campaign funds. 

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