LA school board determines funding, academic goals. Meet the candidates


L to R: Maria Brenes, Rocio Rivas, Kelly Gonez, and Marvin Rodriguez are running for a seat on the LAUSD school board. Photos courtesy of the Brenes campaign, Rivas campaign, Rodriguez campaign, and Abby Cox (Gonez image).

Your ballot for the Nov. 8 election may already have arrived, and if you live in the East San Fernando Valley, downtown LA and its surrounding neighborhoods, or much of East LA, you’ve got the chance to determine the makeup of the LAUSD board. The seven elected board members move millions of dollars into local schools and set learning goals for nearly half a million kids, many of whom lost academic ground and have struggled with their mental health since the year-long pandemic shutdown of in-person schooling. 

Previous races in Los Angeles have featured record-breaking spending for candidates who supported or opposed the operation of charter schools. The LA school board race in 2017 was the most expensive school board election in U.S. history, and in 2020, outside political groups spent about $15 million on just two seats. 

In both cases, philanthropists and charter supporters seeking to promote the privately-run public schools lined up against the powerful LA teachers’ union, which argues the charter system is a backdoor way to defund public schools and weaken teacher protections. Charters typically have non-unionized workforces.

But this year is different. While unions and charter advocates are still spending millions on candidates, they’re not shelling out as much as they have in the past. 

“These elections often end up being a proxy war for charter-union disagreements, and I'm hearing very little of that,” says USC education professor Julie Marsh. “I'm seeing spending is way down, and so I think it is a very unusual election.”

Instead, candidates have focused on other, more existential issues for the nation’s second-largest school district. For one, the pandemic’s school closures resulted in widening achievement gaps and a significant drop in math and reading scores. Also, students are struggling with their mental health, and the district is scrambling to hire and retain teachers and school counselors who can help.

Meanwhile, the number of students in the district is plummeting. LAUSD enrollment has fallen to about 437,000, a 300,000-student decline since its peak two decades ago. With fewer per-pupil dollars entering local schools, and federal pandemic aid set to expire in 2025, Marsh says cuts may be on the horizon “around programs, employment, and campus potential closures.”

The school board candidates in District 2 and District 6 are running campaigns focused on these problems. The races so far have notably not focused on issues that have been heating up school board meetings in other parts of the country, such as critical race theory and banned books. 

Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction, says there’s a renewed urgency to work together. “I'm hopeful that people stay focused on the issues of: How do we support learning recovery for our students, how do we help our students overcome the trauma of the pandemic?” Thurmond told KCRW. “Those are the issues that we need to focus on, rather than anything that's going to be divisive or attacking each other.”

Thurmond is also on the ballot next month in a run-off against the California Republican Party’s pick, Lance Christensen.

District 2 – Maria Brenes vs. Rocio Rivas

Board District 2 spans downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, plus much of East Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of LAUSD.

The school board race in this district, which spans downtown LA and much of East LA, pits Maria Brenes, an outside but politically connected education advocate, against Rocio Rivas, a policy advisor who's already working for the LAUSD Board.

Maria Brenes is the executive director of the Boyle Heights-based InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit that advocates for better health and education outcomes for youth in East LA. For two decades, the organization has been a powerful force in shaping district policies around educational equity and school funding.

Brenes says InnerCity Struggle helped mobilize Latino voters in support of a 2012 ballot proposition, which led to an increase in public funding for schools. The organization also advocated to make certain college-entrance requirements mandatory for all LAUSD students, and championed a funding formula called the Student Equity Needs Index, which the district now uses to aportion additional funds to high-needs schools.

“The role I've played is a broker, a facilitator of breaking down that wall that existed for far too long, between LAUSD … and the community,” says Brenes.

Brenes is supported by SEIU Local 99, the union representing school staff that aren’t teachers. She is also endorsed by Monica Garcia, who holds the school board seat now and is termed out. Brenes’ husband, Luis Sanchez, was Garcia’s chief of staff a decade ago. He also chaired the LAUSD redistricting commission, which redrew the district maps last year.

Brenes points out that Sanchez didn’t redraw the maps himself; he chaired an advisory committee. “The LA City Council approved the map legally,” she says. “They were the ultimate decision makers.”

Brenes’s campaign has been financed in large part by a political action committee funded by billionaire Bill Bloomfield, who has spent millions of dollars in Los Angeles over the past decade in support of charter schools. 

But Brenes says she doesn’t support the continued growth of charter schools in LAUSD, saying she wants to see “increased, strengthening accountability and transparency” of those schools.

Brenes’s opponent, Rocio Rivas, uses stronger language about charters. Rivas came into education policy in the early 2000s, developing an opposition to the privately-run schools at the time they were beginning to boom. Rivas supports a “moratorium” on new charters and wants to improve accountability and oversight over existing ones.

Rivas is a policy advisor for current District 5 school board member Jackie Goldberg. Her work with Goldberg has focused on charter school accountability, early education, and bilingual education, and she says she’s leaning on that experience. 

“That opened my eyes to the inside operations of the district,” she says.

UTLA, the teachers union, is supporting Rivas. “She’s absolutely committed to fighting against privatization,” says Phyllis Hoffman, a Wilmington-based teacher who holds two elected positions with UTLA. 

District 6 – Kelly Gonez vs. Marvin Rodriguez

 Board District 6 covers the East San Fernando Valley. Photo courtesy of LAUSD.

The race in District 6, which spans the eastern San Fernando Valley, pits current school board President Kelly Gonez against a high school teacher, Marvin Rodriguez.  

Gonez was elected to the school board in 2017 after working for the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration. She’s been president of the board since 2020, and she says she’s proud of the way she's worked through challenges, including the 2019 teachers strike, several leadership changes, and then the pandemic.

“I think the school district has stepped up in pretty significant ways, whether it was feeding our families, or closing the digital divide by providing internet and devices,” says Gonez.

Gonez also mentions the board’s success in “safely” bringing kids back to in-person learning. 

Gonez is endorsed by outgoing LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and several labor organizations, including UTLA, which supported her opponent when she ran in 2017. Like Brenes, Gonez’s campaign has been largely funded by the wealthy charter advocate Bloomfield.

Her opponent, Marvin Rodriguez, is a Spanish teacher at Cleveland Charter High School in Reseda, and a former Marine. His campaign has focused on upping teacher pay and increasing mental health support and resources for families.

“What I understand is what my students need,” he says. “Eighteen years of being in the classroom have provided that experience for me. That's what I want to bring to the school board: an understanding of what it is that our students are going through.”