The Rear-View Mirror
The LAUSD’s 2020 Report Card
The COVID-19 pandemic upended the second-largest school district in the country. A look back at some of the major events…
- LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner
As the year began, it appeared that the dominating story within the LAUSD would be the school board elections. All four of the seats that would appear on the ballot were held by public school supporters, meaning that a clean sweep was needed for them to keep their narrow majority over the block supported by the charter school industry. The campaigns were complicated by the fact that these would be the first elections held under new rules that moved them from off years so that they would be on the same ballot as the presidential race.
Leading up to the March primary the charter school industry spent over $6.5 million trying to regain the majority that they lost with the resignation of convicted felon Ref Rodriguez. This included the mailing of anti-Semitic flyers against Board Member Scott Schmerelson in Board District 3. Even Schmerelson’s opponent, Marilyn Koziatek, described these mailings as “crude”, “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.” She never did reject the endorsement of the California Charter School Association (CCSA) Advocates, the organization that mailed them out.
When the votes were counted, all three incumbents had survived, along with the candidate supported by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), Patricia Castellanos, for the open seat in Board District 7. Jackie Goldberg and George McKenna won outright by winning a majority of the votes. Schmerelson and Castellanos earned less than half the vote and, therefore, faced Koziatek and Tanya Ortiz Franklin respectively in the November general election.
Later that same month, the LAUSD was turned upside down along with every other aspect of our public life as COVID-19 took hold. With 40 confirmed cases in Los Angeles County, the district shut down its campuses on March 16. The transition to distance learning got off to a shaky start, with significant technical issues and many students from low-income households lacking access to the technology needed in the new format. Children with special education needs were particularly affected as they lost access to in-person supports and no plan was presented for how the district would help them catch up.
Even from the beginning of the crisis, the LAUSD was very effective at making sure that students who relied on schools for food security continued to receive access to meals. The district’s Grab and Go food program also served needy adults and non-school age children, even as the country, state, and federal governments continued to deny funding for this essential program despite the efforts of Board Member Schmerelson. While charter schools like Granada Hills Charter suspended their food programs during the winter break, the LAUSD continued to serve those in need.
Another program that continued unabated during the crisis was the transfer of space on public schools to privately run charter schools under PROP-39. In the Valley, parents at Shirley Avenue Elementary attempted to fight off efforts by Citizens of the World charter school to take away space used for special education and community programs. Calls by the community, including the Northridge East and Harbor City Neighborhood Councils, to suspend any new or expanded co-locations during the COVID-19 crisis fell on deaf ears, and charter schools continued to take away space from public school students.
Charter schools used the COVID-19 crisis to secure millions of dollars in funding from the Payroll Protection Program meant to save jobs in small businesses. Palisades Charter High School took over $4.6 million from this program even though they voted to layoff some of its employees. When asked for her opinion on these publicly funded entities taking badly needed funds from small businesses, candidate Tanya Ortiz Franklin replied that there were more important issues. Marilyn Koziatek did not respond at all even though the school she works at, Granada Hills Charter, took over $8 million from the program. Schmerelson and Castellanos did weigh in on the subject.
Numerous instances of fraud and mismanagement by charter school organizations also came to light during the year prompting the question: is anyone watching the hen house? Board member Nick Melvoin had mocked my concerns when I pointed out the lax oversight of Community Preparatory Academy in 2019, but in July, the Executive Director of this publicly funded private school pleaded guilty to embezzling $3.1 million. A lawsuit came to light which had accused Granada Hills Charter of improperly firing an employee who had insisted that the school follow the rules for asbestos abatement. The Northridge East Neighborhood Council asked for the city to help investigate fraud after Citizens of the World Charter schools got caught red-handed manipulating the process for requesting space under PROP-39 and New Heights Charter School refused to pay over $1 million that it owes to the LAUSD. El Camino Real Charter High School, which has been hiding an audit of their operation for years, was questioned over accusations of nepotism and fiscal improprieties.
When applying for a renewal of their charter, El Camino was also shown to be serving a lesser percentage of students with disabilities than neighboring public schools. Only 3.26% of the students at Prepa Tec High School had met state standards in math during the 2018–19 school year, but Monica Garcia and Nick Melvoin both voted to renew its charter petition.
This lack of accountability for charter schools will become more commonplace during the next term as Franklin’s win gives the charter school block a majority, even with Schmerelson’s win. Parents will also have less opportunity for input as one of the first actions by newly elected Board President Kelly Gonez was to refuse Schmerelson’s request to reinstate the Parent Engagement and Special Education committees saying that the district staff did not have the time to prepare for these meetings.
When students return to class on January 12, they will still be attending school virtually. With COVID-19 cases surging in Los Angeles, we are worse off than we were when students first abandoned their campuses in March. However, as people begin to receive vaccinations, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel and the possibility that when I write my 2021 synopsis this time next year, students should be at least on the path back to normalcy. We will then have to figure out how to make up for all the time and opportunities that were lost during this past year.
A quick flashback of the other stories that I covered during the past year:
Disregarding the Needs of the LAUSD’s Most Vulnerable Students: The head of Special Education declares that ALL kids are general education students leaving out those with severe intellectual disabilities.
LAUSD District 3 Endorsement — Lifetime Educator Scott Schmerelson: The incumbent has a record of improving opportunities for children and is a better choice than the charter profiteer or the inexperienced parent.
LAUSD District 7 Endorsement — Parent Patricia Castellanos: Castellanos’ experience will bring a unique voice to a board that currently lacks a parent whose child attends any of the district’s schools.
Let The Next Round Of Anti-Semitic Ads Begin: All four pro-public education candidates came in first in their LAUSD school board elections, but two will face run-offs in November.
Did ASchool Board Candidate Accept An Illegal Campaign Contribution? Complaint filed with the Ethics Commission alleges that reducing Marilyn Koziatek’s job responsibilities without a salary reduction violates the law.
Is There An Acceptable Level Of Anti-Semitism? Charter school industry promoter, Ben Austin, says we should ignore ads in an LAUSD School Board race that he admits were anti-Semitic.
For The Children? A bitter email from a former candidate highlights what happens when politics becomes about winning and losing instead of doing “good work.”
Selling Beaudry: A Step In The Right Direction Or More Of The Same? The LAUSD headquarters building is a symbol of the vast bureaucracy that leaves stakeholders feeling detached. A sale will compound the problem.
The Attempted Assassination Of A Public School District: After losing re-election, former board member, Caprice Young, supported by the charter school industry, went on to profit from the failures she herself set in motion.
The American Education System Strains Under The Weight Of An Expanded Mission: Trump’s push to force children back into classrooms during a pandemic is the latest example of how schools have become the social safety net.
From The Person Who Brought You Common Core: Ignoring his failed record as Obama’s Secretary of Education, LAUSD board candidate Marilyn Koziatek accepts Arne Duncan’s endorsement.
The Myth Of Charter Schools And Local Control: LAUSD School Board candidate Marilyn Koziatek says schools need to listen to parents. Shouldn’t this start at the school she helps to lead?
A Private School Flaunts The Law To Keep Its Doors Open: The education gap between the rich and poor widens as Heritage Christian School ignores orders that say all schools are supposed to be closed.
Sabotage In The Classroom? Do a series of actions by those seeking to privatize public education represent an attempt to destabilize the schools they seek to destroy?
Talking About Education: Lessons From The Melting Pot: Three Los Angeles transplants sit down to discuss what education looked like in the places where they went to school.
Is LAUSD Superintendent Beutner Helping His Friend Profit From COVID-19? A $50 million contract for COVID-19 testing was awarded to a three-month-old company with political and financial ties to the head of the school district.
What Does This Charter School Not Want You To Know? Voters in the LAUSD School Board race are going to the polls without having access to all of the information they need to make a decision.
Did Los Angeles Superintendent Improperly Back School Board Candidates? Leader from Board Member Nick Melvoin’s Astroturf group, Speak Up, pretends to be Austin Beutner on Twitter and retweets campaign messages.
Maybe It Is Best Not To Confess To A Crime On Social Media: The LAUSD issues a statement about the fake Twitter account impersonating Superintendent Beutner. The perpetrator is unapologetic.
Parents Oppose District Housing Plans On School Sites: Instead of adding green space or Wellness Centers, the LAUSD bureaucracy proposes building housing on three campuses.
Taking the “Special” Out Of Special Education: The reaction to society’s stigmatization of special education services should not be to keep students from getting the help that they need.
Anti-Union Democrat: While their party’s 2020 platform expresses support of labor, these Democratic politicians work against the right to organize.
I would like to take this time to thank Nicole Thiroux-Petersen, Cindy Petersen, and Sari Rynew for being demanding editors. The coverage of the El Camino stories about the alleged nepotism and financial improprieties would not have been possible without a couple of envelopes that mysteriously showed up in my mailbox. Thanks to everyone who sent tips and offered suggestions for coverage during the past year.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.