Earlier this week Ref Rodriguez, the district 5 representative at the Los Angeles Unified School District, which represents schools throughout Silver Lake, Los Feliz, East Hollywood, South Gate, Vernon and more, resigned after pleading guilty to charges of money-laundering and conspiracy in his campaign for the district seat. Rodriguez originally took his place on L.A. Unified’s board after beating out Benett Kayzer for the appointment in 2015.
I still remember the mail-ads when Rodriguez challenged Kayzer in 2015. It was an often deceitful and indignant race that preyed on people’s fears, not so different from the national campaign waged for the country’s highest office a year later, though with a more local touch; Rodriguez’s campaign sent out ads accusing then-incumbent Kayzer of racist voting policies during his four-year tenure on the board, of leaving his district’s classrooms in ruins, of underpaying school employees, and more. These were distortions of the facts, however: photo-shopped images, votes that were misconstrued, and paid spokespersons. Nevertheless, the consistency with which these ads were delivered to the voters was relentless, and thus distortions of the facts eventually turned into some of the only sources of information for great portions of the electorate.
The race was also a matter of time, however, in that the ‘teachers’ union-backed’ Kayzer waged a lackluster defense of the seat. Although the LAUSD race was a much smaller one than the presidential race in 2016, the same principles needed to be applied to the ‘defense’ of the public interest: in order for voters to come out, they had to be inspired by a particular vision, and Kayzer didn’t much inspire las vecindades towards such a vision. Rodriguez, on the other hand, by virtue of his last name, was regarded as a potential representative for a predominantly Latino district that’s often felt underrepresented in policy-making at both the state and national levels despite accounting for major swaths of the demographics throughout.
I still remember at that time speaking with people throughout the community like the elderly residents of the neighborhood who were interested in a change at LAUSD, for which Rodriguez seemed like just the harbinger; when such individuals at our schools and throughout our communities, who put in major time and investments to both, feel forgotten or unaddressed, it’s a problem. But when the leaders of our community choose to address such people only until election time, that problem becomes a potentially serious liability.
At the same time, when people are fatigued by news cycles followed by election cycles that often do little to speak to the day-to-day concerns of their livelihoods, school board elections come off as only more ads on top of ads and concerns that offer little of substance to them.
But school board positions, while appearing like minor affairs in comparison to national contests, do have major implications. They therefore attract interests from all sides of Los Angeles, including interest from the likes of individuals such as Richard Riordan, the former L.A. mayor and local millionaire on the West side of town. Riordan is a Pro-Trump supporter, and also one who’s known to support candidates on the side of privatizing more schools.
Donors or ‘Philanthropists’ like Riordan, who’ve fared well for themselves with various investments in banking, venture capital, and the sponsorship of these initiatives, have much to say about educating youth in Los Angeles, that is, in the millions of dollars range, but little to no experience in an actual classroom. They nonetheless enter these races, however, and therefore impact not only the outcome, but how people can discuss the issues in the race to begin with; the millions they throw in are matched by millions on the opposing side– or what comes closest to matching that amount–and in the throes of these expenditures, what substance there might be in a contest between two candidates is drowned out by ads, ads, and more ads like the ones Ref Rodriguez deployed against Kayzer.
Something similar to the race between Rodriguez in Kayzer in 2015 would take place two years later. In 2017’s two LAUSD races for Districts 4 and 6, Netflix Co-Founder Reed Hastings was reported to have donated over $7 million to an Association backing the candidates on the side of privatizing more of L.A.’s schools. Both of the candidates supported by these and other donations were successful in beating out the (teachers’) union-backed board representatives at that time, including Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla, respectively.
I’m not able to speak on Padilla’s behalf, but I can speak for my experience as a student at John Marshall High School when Steve Zimmer served as a counselor there; since as far back as my time as a ninth grader in 2004 during my first semester at that school, Zimmer was known among friends and I as a counselor we could count on for a safe space at a time when the consequence for missing class or showing up late could mean a suspension or even a court date. Faced with administrators and a disciplinary system that often suspected the ‘B track’ kids in the crowds were usually up to no good, it was a tense environment for students of color then; but with Steve, there was never a moment of doubt: he didn’t care where we came from, he’d show his support to us regardless.
This was forgotten or discarded somewhere in Steve’s reelection campaign when Reed Hastings’s millions poured into the race. But it is not altogether forgotten quite yet. The pueblo has to remember.
Today’s discussions regarding equity and equality at schools in Los Angeles distinguish two main camps: either pro-charter or pro-union reformers, or people for the privatization of these schools (with public funds), and people for the ‘traditional’ public option. These labels, like the ads, inundate the electorate and ultimately do not tell the whole story about either position. But they should not do so in any case.
Ultimately, at the start of a new school-year, neither charter school advocates nor teachers’ unions alone can produce the best results for the students of Los Angeles; it’s going to take the whole pueblo, the whole state, and the entirety of a collective nation before we can mark a true culmination from the civil rights movements which fought for and brought home the decision in Brown Versus the Board of Education.
In the meantime, however, it is important to note what has happened in these local histories. Those who do not know history are still doomed to repeat it.