Teacher’s $600 Campaign May Oust L.A’s Board of Education President

Kelly Gonez, who is backed by a PAC launched by the CEO of Netflix, is battling LAUSD Spanish instructor Marvin Rodríguez

An electoral upset of David-and-Goliath proportions is brewing in an east San Fernando Valley race.

The reigning president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, Kelly Gonez, is in a dead heat against a total unknown in teachers union member and LAUSD Spanish instructor Marvin Rodríguez.

Gonez, 34, is backed by Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings and Local 99 of the Services Employees International Union, which represents teachers aides, cafeteria workers, janitors and bus drivers. She has also rung up the endorsement of L.A.’s most powerful union—United Teachers Los Angeles—which ordinarily targets friends of charter schools. Gonez was widely expected to cruise to a second term on the board. Instead, she’s in the fight of her political life with a largely self-funded teacher.

The tight race between the incumbent and the upstart candidate says a lot about the lingering resentments as the nation’s largest school system struggles to cope with learning loss and enrollment decline in the wake of what was one of the strictest and longest-running Covid-19 school lockdown policies in America.

Many of the members of the Board of Education are elected with the support of UTLA, and if they harbor ambitions to stick around, making nice with the teachers union is essential.

By all accounts, Gonez has made nice with UTLA, which probably explains why the union has endorsed her re-election and encouraged its members to vote and campaign for her rather than support her challenger—even though Rodríguez, an El Salvador native, is a 17-year public school teacher who has been teaching at Cleveland Charter High School since 2014.

By contrast, Gonez weathered the gale force of UTLA during her maiden run for a school board seat in 2017, as her opponent that year reaped $203,000 in teachers union contributions while Gonez was painted as a lackey for charter school advocates.

Today, the formidable union, led by President Cecily Myart Cruz, is keeping a lower profile in the Gonez-Rodríguez election tilt while spending big on the campaign of Senior School Board Advisor Rocio Rivas, who is facing off against community group leader Maria Brenes, who is backed by the Kids First PAC, launched by the billionaire Netflix founder.

Two-and-a-half years after LAUSD announced its campuses were shutting down as Covid tore across the city—and more than a year since they’ve slowly reopened them to in-person learning—Gonez leads the dark horse Rodríguez by a mere 1,115 votes out of a total of 59,357 as of Thursday’s count, a margin of 1.88%.

Under ordinary circumstances, the fiercely competitive race would be absurd on its face. Gonez raised $513,000 in total contributions to her campaign, plus $431,000 in independent expenditures. The lion’s share of this haul came from Kids First, which is funded by Hastings and businessman Bill Bloomfield, and “Education Workers United for Quality Schools,” a PAC sponsored by Local 99 of the SEIU. Without institutional support to speak of—even from his own union—43-year-old Rodríguez managed to raise all of $11,000—and $6,000 of this total came out of his own pocket in a personal loan to his campaign.

Many close observers of the race suspect that Gonez, a UC Berkeley graduate who earned her Master’s degree in Urban Education from Loyola Marymount University, taught 6th-grade science a few years, and served as an education policy advisor to President Barack Obama, took the challenge from the blue-collar Rodríguez too lightly. She has relied on round after round of campaign mailers, flyers, and phone banking. But she declined the invitation to address voters at a live, virtual candidate forum that KPCC/LAist hosted with Senior Education Reporter Kyle Stokes on October 12—ceding the entirety of the 83-minute event to Rodriguez.

Through Nov. 2, Gonez had spent $160,945 on her campaign to Rodriguez’s $600, which left her with $55,000 left in the bank and him with $575.

And yet for days or even weeks to come, the race will likely remain too close to call.

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