Kelly Gonez and Rocio Rivas have declared victory in their races for seats on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, elevating the influence of the teachers union as the school system navigates contract negotiations, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and critical funding issues.
In District 6, which covers most of the east San Fernando Valley, incumbent school board President Gonez had 51.27% of the vote through Tuesday compared with 48.73% for high school Spanish teacher Marvin Rodriguez.
In District 2, which extends from downtown and surrounding neighborhoods to the Eastside, Rivas had 52.48% of the vote compared with 47.52% for Maria Brenes. Brenes conceded Wednesday, and Rodriguez said this week he would wait to comment until "every vote has been counted."
Based on count updates through Tuesday, it would be virtually impossible for the winners to shift at this point.
Gonez had been 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 politics professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communications.
Schnur noted that "unhappy middle-class parents" had vociferously opposed the length of campus closures during the pandemic and the more limited access to live online teaching in L.A. Unified compared with many school systems. Those parents "have received an immense amount of attention," said Schnur, and probably voted against the incumbent.
"But it’s entirely possible that many parents from lower-income and more heavily minority communities were just as dissatisfied with their children’s education during the pandemic," Schnur said.
Rivas prevailed despite significantly greater financial resources for Brenes, who benefited from two major independent campaigns. One was funded by Netflix founder Reed Hastings, a charter school supporter, and retired businessman Bill Bloomfield. The other was paid for by Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents most of the district's lower-wage, nonteaching workers including bus drivers, teacher aides, custodians and cafeteria workers.
Rivas, in turn, was backed by United Teachers Los Angeles — as the district's two major unions jockeyed for their favorite to be installed amid ongoing contract negotiations. Rivas, 49, a senior aide to school board member Jackie Goldberg, also benefited from the endorsements of left-leaning groups and officials.
She trailed after the initial count on election night but gained steadily as the tallying went on, then pulled ahead — eventually by more than 5,000 votes.
Rivas will replace Monica Garcia, who could not run again because of term limits. Charter-school backers had long supported Garcia, who was typically opposed by the teachers union — the polar opposite of Rivas' political profile. Rivas has called for the district to curtail the influence and growth of charters, which are privately operated, largely nonunion public schools. About 1 in 5 district students attends a charter school.
The seven-member Board of Education will oversee the work of recently hired Supt. Alberto Carvalho as he confronts learning setbacks exacerbated by the pandemic. He's also working to reach agreements with unions, which are calling for large raises to combat inflation and the high cost of living even as economic forecasts have turned pessimistic, threatening the district's future revenues.
Long-term declining enrollment, which accelerated during the pandemic, also puts funding at risk and is expected to lead to school closures. The chances of avoiding a recession are "narrow," 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 experienced since the Great Recession" ending in 2009.
"If the LAO's report proves correct, we are heading into a period of budgetary limits," 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 struggle between the teachers union and charter school backers that dominated the campaign funding, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.
The race, he said, boiled down "to which candidate will be more compliant when it comes to bargaining with UTLA, and that seems to be Rivas."
Members of the teachers union — teachers, nurses and counselors — are working under an expired contract and are seeking a 10% raise for this year and an additional 10% for next year.
Rivas said her immediate agenda would include expanding successful schools such as Bravo Medical Magnet High in Boyle Heights, which has a waiting list, and popular dual-language programs. She also wants to draw new students into the district by promoting successful programs, and plans to focus on mental health issues that students face, especially in light of the pandemic.
Rivas said that while she supports major policy positions of the union, she will put the interests of students and families first.
"I will be reaching out to everyone," she said. "I will be present at every single school ... even charter schools. If they invite me I will be there. I'm here for all constituents."
"I didn't win by a landslide, obviously," she added. "So there's a good population of board 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 board District 6," Gonez said in a statement. "As we recover from the impacts 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 supports and more resources for our staff so that our communities can heal, grow and thrive."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.