A little over a week ago, I attended the first forum of the Board District 5 Special Election runoff. This particular forum was also an endorsement meeting for the DNA, Democrats for Neighborhood Action. The DNA’s forum/endorsement meeting took place at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC), the same location of the divisive forum I attended in January on the last day of the LA teacher’s strike. Given the tension and hostility that took place at that forum, you may not be surprised why I was curious to see how this first face-off between two powerful union candidates would be.
Each candidate started off with an introduction and their first-hand experience, if any, teaching in the classroom. Heather Repenning was up first. Heather was raised by a single mother who was a public school teacher in the midwest. Even though Heather’s mom encouraged her not to be a teacher, only because she felt teachers were underpaid and underappreciated, Heather still felt the call to the classroom. She taught at a public high school in France, and she taught at a bilingual school in Honduras, which is where she learned to speak Spanish. In 2003, Heather worked for LA Unified as a community outreach organizer during their building program. During this time she visited a lot of schools, and she organized parents and stakeholders to get involved in their community. Heather also worked on the infamous Ambassador Hotel project, which is now Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. This is the same project that Jackie Goldberg brings up every chance she gets and says how they “took the Ambassador Hotel from Trump.”
Heather has worked in public service for 18 years. She worked for the Mayor, she’s worked with the City Council, and she was the Vice President on the Board of Public Works, where she was overseeing government spending and government services. She has an impressive background and the perspective of a parent. And if elected she would be the only Board Member with a school-aged child! This is something that we are desperately missing with the current school board. Like her mother, Heather is a single mother too, which is something I can definitely relate to. Heather’s daughter is in the 2nd grade at their neighborhood public school. Like most LAUSD working parents, Heather depends on the school to teach and take care of her daughter all day until she gets off of work. At the forum, she said, “What I experience is the everyday reality of LAUSD parents. I see what’s working and what’s not.” Heather understands that it’s important to “make sure we get the right outcome, in the right neighborhood,” based on the needs of each community.
Jackie Goldberg spent seventeen years in the classroom and sixteen of those years were in Compton Unified School District. After leaving the LAUSD School Board in 1991, she taught part-time for one year at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley. She also taught at UCLA for several years, but it looks like Grant High School, twenty-eight years ago, was the last time she taught in an LAUSD school. I hope that’s not the last time she’s been in a district classroom, especially since she said, “Downtown doesn’t know what’s going on every day in the classroom. Knowing what’s going on in the classroom makes a big difference.” She also said she’s involved in the “day to day,” but I’m not sure to what extent that is true. I’m not doubting her experience, she was on the school board for eight years and two of those years as President, I’m simply saying that it’s been awhile. I know she has nieces and nephews in public schools, but without school-age children at home, how is she connected to the classroom today?
At this forum, there were a couple of interesting questions about charter schools, but putting charters aside for a moment, the most interesting question that night was the question about campaign endorsements and expenditures:
“In this campaign, independent expenditures have been made on behalf of both candidates, notably on behalf of Ms. Goldberg by UTLA and notably on behalf of Ms. Repenning by SEIU 99. What do you believe these supporters expect from you as a Board Member and how would they or would they not influence your decisions as a Board Member?”
Jackie answered the question first by saying that she was pretty set in her ways and that she didn’t know if they expected her to be any different than she’s always been. She then explained further by saying, “Do I believe that teachers don’t get enough money? Yes. Do I believe teachers don’t get enough respect? Yes. Do I believe there’s enough teaching assistants? No, there aren’t. Are there enough assistant principals? No, there aren’t. There aren’t enough teachers either, that’s why our class sizes are too big. So I will be supporting things that the teacher’s union will like.” At the same time she said, “I do not feel beholden to UTLA in the sense that anything goes. I do feel beholden to teachers, to nurses, to counselors, to librarians because they are a part of making public education work. Will I work for them? Yes. But I’ll work for those who oppose me too because unfortunately, that’s who I am.”
Heather’s response to this question was that she was running to serve the students, but she also shared a vision that she shares with the members of SEIU. “I think one of the things I share with them is a vision of really dynamic community schools. As a working parent, I am entirely dependent on LAUSD. My daughter is there until 5:30 or 6 PM every day.” Heather then said that her daughter is in Beyond the Bell, an afterschool program.
“Beyond the Bell doesn’t have homework help. And I think it’s really important that all of our kids, all of our students have access to free homework help after school. I think it’s a very inexpensive and a critical way to actually do better in school. I love doing homework with her, but I often don’t have time. My reality is the reality of parents across the district. We should make sure that every school has homework assistance available for all of our kids for free. And those are the types of conversations I’ve had with SEIU. I’m running to support LAUSD, I’m running to invest in our neighborhood schools,” Heather said.
After a few questions from the audience, the club was ready to hear from its members and vote. During the discussion, several friends and supporters of Jackie spoke in her favor, including former Board Member Bennett Kayser. I overheard the lady who was signing people in say to another woman in the audience, “Wasn’t she great?” referring to Jackie. I couldn’t help but feel like the room was already swayed but then another lady, confirmed my observations, by going on a rant about charter schools and its supporters. I won’t quote anyone since it was a private discussion, but I will mention that Board Members Monica Garcia, Kelly Gonez, and Nick Melvoin were the targets of her attacks. Oh and of course, Austin Beutner was included in the rant. Finally, the vote was ready and the final count was 52-10 Jackie. Given the crowd, I was not surprised.
Former candidates running for the Board District 5 seat, have started to endorse a run-off candidate. Cynthia Gonzalez has endorsed Jackie Goldberg. And Graciela Ortiz, who lost to Heather by 31 votes, and many of her south LA supporters have shown their support for Heather. Justine Gonzalez, a former BD5 candidate, also endorsed Heather last week.
I know there are a lot of parents and families in the south part of BD5 who might feel disappointed that they didn’t get a candidate in the runoff who they feel truly represents and reflects their often overlooked community, and I understand that. I know what’s it’s like to live in a community that is typically ignored. I would also be disappointed if I felt my voice was not heard in this election. On the other hand, I do understand that even when the candidate you supported wins, it doesn’t mean that you will always agree with their actions. I think it’s best to find the candidate that aligns closest with your values and views and build a relationship with them. There may be disagreements, but if we keep in mind that the children are the focus of this work, then we should be able to find common ground.
I think we can find that common ground with Heather Repenning. I have heard her say several times that she wants to hear from all of her constituents and that she wants to work together. I have also heard Heather say that she wants to understand the needs of all schools in BD5. Rather than grouping certain types of school models all together, Heather wants to look at things on an individual basis. This is something I have not heard from Jackie Goldberg. All I have heard Jackie do is attack and blame charter schools for the district’s failures. I don’t understand how she plans to work with charter parents, if elected, after attacking their choice and child’s school so much. Heather has made it very clear that she is not a “charter person,” but I do think she is a fair person. And as a mom and a teacher, I believe she will put students first when making decisions about their education.
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