Q&A: Heather Repenning Enters a Pivotal School Board Runoff in Los Angeles With Vows to Address the Need ‘to Write a New Chapter of Change’ at LAUSD
After what she called a challenging campaign, Heather Repenning — an L.A. Unified parent and former mayoral aide — is “optimistic” she will defeat frontrunner Jackie Goldberg in the May runoff for the District 5 school board seat.
“I want to be a fighter, especially for the kids that are the underdog in the system. Along with my own daughter, they’re the ones I’m running for.”
The Los Angeles County Clerk on Friday certified the results of the primary election, which put Repenning in second place out of 10 candidates. She squeaked into the runoff by 31 votes, over Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortíz. Repenning had 13 percent of the votes, while Goldberg, a former District 5 board member and a longtime politician, captured 48 percent.
“My opponent had a big advantage in the primary. I think the strike really gave her an advantage,” Repenning said about Goldberg, who was a prominent face of the teachers union during January’s strike. “Nonetheless, she didn’t get the 50 percent, so here we are.”
While Ortíz could have called for a recount, Repenning has been effectively campaigning against Goldberg since March 15 when Repenning declared she would make the runoff. But on Wednesday, Ortíz told LA School Report that she will not request a recount.
The winner of the May 14 runoff will become the seventh member of the board, where power currently swings between board members elected with the support of education reformers and charter school backers and those elected with teachers union money and muscle.
Repenning, 44, vows to be a “coalition builder” on the board, where she says there’s an “ongoing battle” for control. She reiterated to LA School Report on Friday that she won’t take contributions from charter school operators.
“I will continue building my coalition. And I’m just going to continue moving forward with my message of the importance of having someone who reflects [parents’] needs, bringing a perspective of what are the changes that are going to most help our students right now.”
In an hour-long interview earlier this month in a coffee shop in Silver Lake near her home and in follow-up conversations and emails, Repenning outlined her qualifications for the job and her priorities for the district.
If Repenning wins, she would be the only board member with a child in the school district.
Her daughter is in second grade at Ivanhoe Elementary, their neighborhood school in Silver Lake, in the northern section of District 5. The district, known as BD5, includes wealthier and whiter communities north of downtown as well as predominantly poor and Latino areas of southeast L.A.
Repenning, who is divorced, has lived in the neighborhood since she moved to Southern California in 2001 for graduate school.
She was born in Kentucky and moved to Florida at age 10. She learned the importance of public education through her mother, who taught second grade in a Cincinnati school — across the state line from Kentucky — where the majority of students were African-American. “She was always very focused on my education,” Repenning said of her mother, a single mom.
Repenning attended public schools, including a magnet school in Florida for middle and high school. “I was very lucky I had a world-class education.” In her magnet school, “We all went to college, there was no question about it, and that’s what I want for my daughter and for all LAUSD students.” She graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in literature and has a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine. Before beginning her career in the public sector, she taught at L.A. City College and at a bilingual school in Honduras. She speaks Spanish and French.
Repenning has spent nearly two decades with the City of Los Angeles, working closely with Mayor Eric Garcetti in various roles including as political director on his 2013 campaign, director of external affairs and vice president of the Board of Public Works, which she resigned from when she announced her candidacy last year. She also worked with L.A. Unified helping organize parents and other stakeholders around the building of new schools, including those at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools site.
“Public education is not theoretical to me, is not an idea or concept,” she said. “I’m working with the system every day and that will be true for the next 10 years of my life and my daughter’s life until she, hopefully, walks across the stage and receives her LAUSD [high school] diploma.”
During the primary campaign, Repenning’s top supporters were the mayor and the education workers’ union. SEIU Local 99 represents 30,000 custodians, cafeteria workers, special education assistants, bus drivers and other school workers at L.A. Unified — about the same number of members in the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which backs Goldberg. Nearly half of SEIU Local 99 members are also parents or guardians of school-aged children.
On the day of the primary election, philanthropist Eli Broad made a $100,000 donation to an SEIU Local 99 political action committee backing Repenning, the Los Angeles Times reported. Broad’s foundation has funded reform-minded board candidates and supports charter schools.
When asked about the donation, Repenning said it was made through an independent campaign on her behalf. “I can’t communicate or coordinate with them. I built a really big, strong coalition of diverse kinds of people from every corner of this district, and I’m going to continue broadening and diversifying my coalition. I think it is a reflection of the type of leadership I’ll bring to the district.”
But she also made clear that in terms of her own campaign, “I’m still not going to accept contributions from charter school operators. My rule of thumb would be not to accept and return those because being in a position of having to vote on authorizing or renewing those, I think it would be cleaner. That has been my perspective, and I’m going to maintain that in the runoff.”
She has positioned herself as a centrist candidate — pursuing neither charter backers’ nor teachers unions’ support. UTLA pushed for Goldberg to be appointed to the BD5 seat last August after it was left open when Ref Rodríguez resigned after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges.
The board rejected the proposal to appoint Goldberg, which was introduced by board member Scott Schmerelson in August, after pressure from the community, particularly Latino parents from the southeast section of BD5.
Repenning’s endorsements also include the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112 and at least a dozen other local unions, as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus LA Metro, the Los Angeles County Young Democrats and local and state elected officials. On Wednesday, days after Repenning officially made it to the runoff, Eduardo Cisneros, director of the National Census Program for NALEO Educational Fund and a former field director for Yolie Flores when she was an L.A. Unified school board member, announced his endorsement for Repenning through his Twitter account. Cisneros was also one of the 17 initial candidates in the BD5 race, but he withdrew in November.
Repenning says she looks at basic priorities that the district needs to address “now” from a parent perspective.
“The job itself isn’t easy, but we need strong advocates who are going to fight for our kids on the board of education, and that’s what I will do. I believe I’m the best person to do the job. I believe in our kids, I believe in their potential. My priorities will tell you how different I am from my opponent.”
1. Afterschool programs. “I’m a working mom, my daughter started daycare at nine months. I’ve always worked. My daughter is at school until 5:30 or 6 every day. It’s important to me that we have, across all of our campuses, some type of academic support for students like homework assistance. Working families, we don’t always have the chance to help our kids after a long day of work. There are a lot of parents who are not necessarily prepared to support their kids [with homework]. To me, the learning doesn’t stop on minimum days, after school. I think whether it is with teaching assistants or reaching out to universities that are training our future teachers, we should have a program across all LAUSD, all ages.”
2. Dynamic school communities. “I think schools should be very trusted places in our communities. Eighty percent of our families are living at or near the poverty line, so there are a lot of things that we can do to help them, both the students and their families, at the school site, with the right partnerships. I believe that because of my background working with other agencies, I think I’m a very strong person to be able to organize and put those services together and make it work.”
3. Early education. “There’s a lot of money on the table for that right now from the state, and daycare and preschool are very expensive. At the same time, we want our kids to be ready for kindergarten. We want our kids to start kindergarten ready to learn from day one. I see early education as a way to support working families but more than that to support students’ readiness as a way to address students’ achievement gaps. I would want our kids to come to our schools being bilingual starting from kindergarten. Bilingualism for me is very important.”
4. College readiness. “I think the LAUSD leaders should be advocates for affordable and accessible higher education. It’s expensive and it’s daunting, and we need to make sure that our students have the support that they need so they can get into higher education. The basic things are increasing access to counselors, increasing the support for students to fill out their FAFSA forms. Even earlier than that, I think there’s a shift that needs to happen. We need to start signaling to students at a much earlier age that, ‘Hey, you’re going to college.’ Students need to be seen not just as future college graduates but as future leaders. One of the most important jobs for a school board member is setting those high expectations. I believe in high expectations, the same expectations I have for my daughter. I have those expectations for every child at LAUSD.”
5. Parent engagement. “As a parent, we have so much work to do on parent engagement. Everything from making board meetings more accessible to giving parents more information on how schools are doing when they are trying to decide, choosing, where to send your child to school. I think we can take the California School Dashboard and add more to it. I think the English and math proficiency scores don’t always tell the full picture. Data and information is a really import piece of accountability. The more information that we’re able to share, the more it empowers parents. At the end of the day, the more engaged they are, the more they can hold schools accountable, the better for the school system. I do think having real parent engagement is not something you turn around overnight, but you need to find ways to reach our parents, particularly at the middle and high school level.”
6. Climate change. “LAUSD needs to be really thinking about climate change and how our campuses can help. Addressing the environment is actually important for our kids. It’s kind of a secondary area that is very important to me. It’s something I can bring a unique set of skills to because of the job I have done at the city.”
7. Supporting principals. “We all know that a very strong principal makes a really huge difference in a school. I think this is an area where we should target investment, really supporting our principals and administrators. A lot of them come out of teaching, they made their way up and principals are running major organizations that are LAUSD schools. We have to make sure they have access to the support and training that they need because I think that is an impactful way to improve the quality of our schools.”
8. Testing. “I think about the question of are we overtesting. I’m going to look into the question of whether the assessments are working, how are they working? What are we doing with our assessments, is there a way to bring more qualitative [testing] versus standardized testing into the picture? And I think about what are we doing with those assessments, how are we making sure that we’re following up with the students. How are we making the results transparent to parents and making clear what the follow-up is when you see that students are not performing at the level that they should be.”
9. Career readiness. “As a parent, I think a lot about how are students spending their time, and I think about the key questions about what are we preparing our students for. What are the skills and the knowledge we want them to have when their time with us is over. How are we organizing their school day to match up with our goals for them. What are the careers we’re getting them ready for. I think LAUSD leaders should be able to look ahead to what the workplace of the future looks like, what are the growing career sectors and be able to point our kids in those directions. I think one area of opportunities is teaching. There’s a teachers shortage, and I think — how do we look at LAUSD students as future LAUSD teachers and [workers] in the city as well. We’re going to lose up to 40 percent of our city workforce in the next five to 10 years due to retirements. City jobs are incredible jobs, and I think — how can we look at those opportunities.”
Repenning leans heavily on her role as “a coalition builder and my ability to work with different stakeholders and build coalitions” — something she sees as “a really important thing on that board right now. My campaign is not directed at the ongoing battle for which side retains the control of the board of education. I don’t think that work is particularly beneficial to students. I think there are two sides, both of which represent their members. Sometimes what they’re doing coincidentally also represent the students, but they’re representing their members — that’s it. So we need people on the board who are focused on the work at hand, on what can be achieved right now, who understand the day-to-day realities of students and their families, who work trying to figure the system out. It’s messy, it’s not black and white, we need someone who can figure it out.”
The BD5 board member represents more than 81,000 students enrolled in 177 traditional schools, as well as nearly 15,500 charter school students, according to the California Charter Schools Association. Those students attend 32 independent charter schools. Because some of those schools are on multiple campuses, that brings the number of charter sites in BD5 to 41, a district spokesperson said.
Other school choice programs in BD5 that are run by the district include 38 magnet programs and 32 dual language programs. There are no affiliated charters — which are district-run schools with some autonomies — in BD5.
While Repenning has not been as direct a critic of charter schools as Goldberg has been during the primary campaign, Repenning said she “would have supported the resolution” that the school board approved in January calling for a moratorium on new charters. Goldberg also said she supported the moratorium.
“The resolution itself is symbolic. The school board doesn’t have a lot of oversight. All of the rules are set by the state, so the district currently doesn’t have the ability to put a moratorium on charter schools. They can ask the state to look at it, which they did,” Repenning said.
“To me, I see charter schools as, they are part of our system. One in five families, students are part of the charter community, and the way I look at it is that some of them are not performing. I was very disappointed to see nine charter schools on the list of poor-performing schools that the state put up. If you’re going to get public money, that’s a huge responsibility; you need to be doing much better than us or else I don’t see the point of renewing, so that’s a concern. We know there are some that are doing a really good job. And some of them have been around for many years, so I think, is there a way to acknowledge the work and learn from them. I mean, the whole point was to create these laboratories that we learn from. Then, I see transparency — they are spending public money, I believe that we need transparency over how those funds are being spent.”
Goldberg’s position on charters closely aligns with that of UTLA. She told LA School Report that she isn’t proposing to close charter schools but claims they’ve become a privatization scheme at the hands of billionaires that demands enhanced transparency and scrutiny — especially as the traditional public school system remains underfunded.
“I’m concerned about some of the rhetoric right now,” Repenning said, and “the impact that has on parents and students in charter schools. My opponent said something on Sunday about how she would never send her child to a charter school. She said their parents were harming other children in deciding to send them to charter schools. I feel that parents are not to blame for any of this. We’re all doing our job, which is trying to find the best school for our kids, and LAUSD needs to do its job.”
District 5 has the second-highest concentration of Latino students in L.A. Unified. Latinos make up almost 90 percent of enrollment in L.A. Unified’s Board District 5, which has some of the district’s neediest students and the state’s lowest-performing schools, particularly in the southeast section of the district, where many students are children of immigrants.
In the past 24 years, only two Latinos have occupied the BD5 board seat: Rodríguez, who was elected in 2015 and served as president of the board before resigning last year, and Yolie Flores in 2007. Flores was vice president of the board for three years of her four-year term.
“I’ve lived in Board District 5 for 18 years, pretty much since I first moved to L.A. I understand the importance of representation,” Repenning said. “While I am who I am, I can represent the things they most care about and that students need.
“One core value that I share as well is that we have to invest in those schools that are serving a higher-needs population of kids. I believe in my ability to support immigrant parents, first of all on immigration policies. When I was at the city, I oversaw the office of immigrant affairs. I’ve personally been involved, I understand DACA, TPS, I understand drivers licenses, I understand how vulnerable parents are right now. I believe schools are very, very important places to communicate about a variety of things, not just about a child’s education. [I understand] parents who may otherwise be nervous to access government services in the climate we are in. I believe in my ability to support immigrant parents and fight for the education that they deserve for their kids.”
Repenning also said she believes in boosting bilingual programs in early education to support English learners whose first language is Spanish and that parent engagement “needs to be done in Spanish. It needs to be done in person.”
“It’s very, very important for me to speak Spanish. I think is very important that we support those kids who come to our schools speaking Spanish and not override their Spanish but preserve it, so they can actually come into kindergarten [being] bilingual.
“Given that the majority of BD5 students are Latinx, I think that as a parent who works hard so that my child can have the opportunities that come with a good education, I can directly relate to BD5 parents who share these values.”
Goldberg has the support of prominent Latino political figures such as L.A. County Supervisor and former U.S. secretary of labor Hilda Solís and iconic Latina activist Dolores Huerta.
Repenning was endorsed by the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles, an organization that advocates for policies and legislation that benefit the Latino community in Los Angeles.
Alex Toruno, its president, said in an interview that Repenning “has proven to be a problem solver, her experience is relevant to fix many of the issues LAUSD is currently facing.”
Toruno said that as a first-generation Latino and graduate student at UCLA, “I understand the importance of Latinos having access to high-quality early education and college readiness, and she [Repenning] has really addressed that as a priority in her vision.” He also said Repenning showed that she cares for the social-emotional needs of students and recognized how poverty affects their learning.
Independent studies of L.A. Unified’s finances and budget reviews by the district’s county overseers have pointed to significant deficit spending and ballooning health care and pension costs that will eat up the district’s reserves within three years. The district’s budget relies on new funding sources that are not guaranteed: projected revenue from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget and local initiatives like a parcel tax, which will be on the ballot this June.
Goldberg and the teachers union have questioned the district’s and county’s assessments of L.A. Unified’s financial stability. But Repenning affirmed that “there are some really big challenges on the horizon,” adding that “it serves no one to turn a blind eye to the very real financial issues LAUSD is facing. First, we need more support for our schools from both Washington and Sacramento and for all of us to put aside political differences to ensure we pass Measure EE this June,” she said, referring to the proposed parcel tax.
“But we also need to take a serious look at eliminating redundancy and waste in our bureaucracy and how we can push existing resources out of the central office and back into the community. Finally, we need to be creative and think about how we can utilize existing local, county and nonprofit resources to supplement the district’s efforts in serving our kids.”
She said she plans to bring change by moving “bureaucracy out of the way.”
“I do think that there are areas inside the bureaucracy where we can look to push out resources to the school sites. I’d love to create a program where everyone at Beaudry or at the local districts spends one day a month or maybe more working at a school site. Because a school site is at the core of what we’re doing, that’s where our focus should be.
“Whether there are areas of waste, I think it’s important to be able to highlight those and be able to address them. One of the areas I see is that there are a lot of lawsuits being settled, a lot of payouts for whatever happened. It should have never happened in the first place, so [we need to be] trying to prevent that with better HR practices.”
Repenning said, “I’ll continue to emphasize the need to write a new chapter of change at LAUSD,” emphasizing again that she is in the race because “there’s nothing more important to me than my daughter’s education. The things I want to change, they’re basic things I see through the lens of a parent and through my daily experience in LAUSD.”
That vision includes not just students in District 5 but all district students, she said.
“There’s a huge amount of work in front of us. I plan to focus on what’s achievable now to move the needle to benefit our kids. My goal is to make LAUSD a school system that works for every student.”
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