Gonez is re-elected; Rivas wins free seat on LA school board

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Kelly Gonez and Rocio Rivas have declared victory in their races for seats on the Los Angeles Board of Education, increasing the influence of the teachers union as the school system navigates contract negotiations, recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and critical funding issues.

In District 6, which covers most of the eastern San Fernando Valley, incumbent school board president Gonez had 51.27% of the vote through Tuesday, compared to 48.73% for high school Spanish teacher Marvin Rodriguez.

In District 2, which extends from downtown and surrounding neighborhoods to the eastern side, Rocio Rivas had 52.48% of the vote, compared to 48.71% for Maria Brenes. Brenes conceded on Wednesday and Rodriguez this week said he would wait to comment until “every vote has been counted.”

Based on tally updates through Tuesday, it would be virtually impossible for the winners to shift at this point.

Gonez was heavily favored over Rodriguez, whose campaign funding was swamped by his opponent’s. But the contest turned out to be surprisingly close, said Dan Schnur, a professor of politics at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications.

Schnur noted that “unhappy middle class parents” had vociferously opposed the duration of campus closures during the pandemic and the more limited access to live online education in LA Unified compared to many school systems. Those parents “have received tremendous attention,” Schnur said, likely voting against the incumbent.

“But it’s quite possible that many parents from lower-income communities and heavier minority communities were just as dissatisfied with their children’s education during the pandemic,” Schnur said.

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Rivas triumphed despite significantly increased funding for Breves, who benefited from two major independent campaigns. One was funded by Netflix founder Reed Hastings, a charter school adherent, and retired businessman Bill Bloomfield. The other was paid by Service Employees International Union’s Local 99, which represents most of the district’s lower-paid, non-teaching employees, including bus drivers, teaching assistants, custodians, and cafeteria staff.

Rivas, in turn, was backed by United Teachers Los Angeles — as the district’s two largest unions scrambled to install their favorite and plunged into the fray of ongoing contract negotiations. Rivas, 49, a senior assistant to school board member Jackie Goldberg, also benefited from support from leftist groups and officials.

She trailed after the first count on election night, but won steadily as the count progressed and then moved ahead — eventually by more than 5,000 votes.

Rivas will replace Monica Garcia, who was unable to run again due to term restrictions. Charter school supporters had long supported Garcia, who was typically opposed by the teachers’ union—the opposite of Rivas’s political profile. Rivas has called for curbing the influence and growth of charters, which are privately run, largely non-union public schools. About one in five district students attend a charter school.

The seven-member Board of Education will oversee the work of the recently hired Supt. Alberto Carvalho as he faces setbacks exacerbated by the pandemic. He is also negotiating deals with unions, which are demanding large wage increases to combat inflation and the high cost of living, even as economic forecasts have turned pessimistic and threaten the district’s future earnings.

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Long-term declining enrollments, which accelerated during the pandemic, are also jeopardizing funding and are expected to lead to school closures. The odds of avoiding a recession are “close,” the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded in a Nov. 16 report. “Reflecting the threat of a recession, our revenue estimates represent the weakest performance the state has seen since the Great Recession,” ended in 2009.

“If the LAO’s report turns out to be correct, we’re entering a period of budget caps,” said John Rogers, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.

The district’s looming financial and enrollment problems will overshadow the longstanding political battle between the teachers’ union and charter school supporters who dominated campaign finance, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.

The race, he said, came down to “which candidate will be most accommodating when it comes to negotiations with UTLA, and that appears to be Rivas.”

Members of the teachers’ union – teachers, nurses and counselors – are currently on an expired contract and are asking for a 10% raise for this year and an additional 10% for next year.

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Rivas said her immediate agenda is to expand successful schools like Bravo Medical Magnet High in Boyle Heights, which has a waiting list, and popular bilingual programs. She also wants to attract new students to the district by promoting successful programs, and plans to focus on the mental health issues facing students, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

Rivas said that while she supports the union’s key policy positions, she will put the interests of students and families first.

“I will reach everyone,” Rivas said. “I will attend every school… even charter schools. If they invite me, I’ll be there. I am here for all voters.”

“I didn’t win by a landslide, of course,” she added. “So there’s a good population of District 2 that doesn’t know me and I want them to know who I am.”

Incumbent Gonez said she is ready to take on new challenges in her second term.

“I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to continue the work tirelessly on behalf of the students, families and communities of District 6 administration,” Gonez said in a statement. “As we recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am ready to build a brighter future for our students with transformative and joyful learning opportunities, holistic mental health support, and increased resources for our staff so that our communities can heal, grow and thrive.”

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