Q&A: Teachers Union Pick Jackie Goldberg Outlines Her First-Day Priorities and Strategies as She Prepares for a Pivotal School Board Runoff Race in Los Angeles

Jackie Goldberg, right, is joined by United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl on March 5’s election night. (Jackie Goldberg/ Flickr)

As the race for the open school board seat in Los Angeles officially heads to a runoff, frontrunner Jackie Goldberg has yet to break a sweat.

With ardent backing from the local teachers union, the 74-year-old former school board member nabbed 15,935 votes — 48.18 percent of the 33,074 total ballots cast — in the March 5 primary election in L.A. Unified’s Board District 5. The county certified those tallies on Friday. Goldberg’s runoff opponent, district parent and former L.A. city official Heather Repenning, clocked in far behind, with about 13 percent of the vote.

Even before Friday’s certification, Goldberg told LA School Report that she and her team were already prepping for a runoff, and sticking to the strategy and priorities that got her to where she is now. A prominent face of union support and charter school skepticism during January’s teacher strike, Goldberg mounted a primary campaign that nearly secured her the more than 50 percent majority vote required to win outright amid a pool of 10 candidates.

“We’ll do what we’ve always done, which is to run a campaign on why I think I’m the right person at this moment to help preserve and protect and promote appropriate funding of public education,” said Goldberg, whose campaign has largely fixated on taxing the state’s wealth and strengthening oversight and transparency of charters. “That’s what we did in the primaries, and obviously it resonated with a lot of people.”

Goldberg added on Monday that her campaign has “picked up additional endorsements, and people are calling up to say, ‘How can I help?’ So we’re off and running.” Goldberg tweeted Tuesday that she had picked up the endorsement of Latino primary candidate Cynthia González, whom the Los Angeles Times had endorsed. United Teachers Los Angeles has spent about $670,000 to support Goldberg’s election so far.

Though Goldberg is white and doesn’t speak Spanish — the board district’s enrollment is almost 90 percent Latino — the Silver Lake resident notes that she is not a “new resident” in the district. She’s lived in L.A. Unified since the 1960s and taught in neighboring Compton for 16 years before serving as an L.A. Unified board member from 1983 to 1991. Goldberg then sat on the L.A. City Council from 1993 to 2000 before joining the state Assembly from late 2000 to 2006. She’s married to longtime partner Sharon Stricker and has one adopted son who attended school in L.A. Unified in the 1980s and early ‘90s. She has two grandchildren and five grand-nieces and -nephews attending district schools.

“I’ve got skin in this game,” she said.

If elected in the May 14 runoff, Goldberg — who would swing the typically seven-member board toward a more union-friendly agenda — would be seated as soon as the county certifies the results, which is tentatively slated for May 24, according to the county. The seat has been vacant since Ref Rodríguez, an education reformer and charter school founder, resigned in July after pleading guilty to political money laundering charges. The term runs through December 2020, though Goldberg told LA School Report in February that she could try to stay past then.

Up until Wednesday, there was a possibility that Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortíz, whom Repenning narrowly beat by 31 votes for a spot in the runoff against Goldberg, would request a recount. Ortíz opted against a recount on Wednesday.

A few weeks after LA School Report ran an in-depth profile on Goldberg, we circled back for post-primary perspective on her priorities, her runoff strategy against Repenning and her views on student performance. Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Day 1 priorities

Q: If you’re elected, what would be your first-day priorities?

1. Per-pupil spending. “One of the things we heard as I went around everywhere in this particular campaign was that some neighborhoods believe that even [in] L.A. Unified, they don’t get the same number of dollars per pupil as people who live in more affluent areas. So I want the district to do a study of the per-pupil expense given to each school to make sure that that’s either not true, or if it is true, that we fix it. Because that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”

2. Budgeting. “I’m going to sit down with the budget folks and tell them what I understand the budget to be and hear what they think it is, so that we can begin to reconcile some of the differences of opinion about what state the budget’s in.”

Goldberg has said L.A. Unified’s current financial crisis is an exaggeration, stating that the district leans on “worst-case scenario” projections. While she doesn’t have explicit budget cuts in mind yet, she says she’s opposed to slashing administrative positions as a solution.

3. Charter school accountability. “I want to begin fairly quickly asking the charter office to tell me what they do” when charter schools are “short by more than 50 percent for the number of students they said they would be serving. What do we do about that? Do we take money back from them?”

About 34 of the 224 independent charter schools in 2017-18 “met or exceeded” their enrollment targets, according to district data. It typically takes five years for new charters to reach enrollment goals, and California Charter Schools Association data show charter enrollment in L.A. Unified growing every year. Goldberg told LA School Report last month that she isn’t proposing to close charter schools, but that there needs to be enhanced transparency and scrutiny — especially as the traditional public school system remains underfunded.

4. Social-emotional supports. “I want to take a good look at what schools have social-emotional programs going in Board District 5 … whether or not we have social workers and psychiatric social workers.”

Goldberg added that she’s already been talking with officials such as county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl about additional supports. County supervisors in January OK’d $10 million in funding for more mental health counselors in L.A. Unified’s schools.

5. Taxing the state’s wealth. “I want to begin talking with my friends and former colleagues in Sacramento about current year tax legislation possibilities, particularly around taxing the wealth of the wealthiest folks in California. … Rather than trying to tax their income — because mostly they don’t have income, they have holdings — I would want to put some kind of tax on their holdings and see if we get some authors [in the legislature] to do that.”

Goldberg supports the Proposition 13 tax referendum on the 2020 ballot, which would increase property taxes statewide on commercial and industrial properties.

6. School visits. “I want to begin to visit the schools, starting with those in the southeast first because I’m the least familiar with them. That’s really the best way to know what’s going on in the district — to get up out of your chair and go visit schools.”

Goldberg said that in all of her past positions, she’s never represented the southeast part of Board District 5, known as BD5. The southeast is the poorer section of BD5. Student enrollment is almost entirely Latino, and all seven of the state’s lowest-performing schools that are in BD5 are located there. It includes the cities of Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate and Bell. Goldberg lives in Silver Lake, which is in the northern, more affluent part of BD5. Other northern cities in the board district are Highland Park, Echo Park, Eagle Rock and Los Feliz.

Goldberg is familiar with the southeast, however, “because I taught in Compton, and that’s just south of [that area]. So it’s not a part of the county where I’m like, ‘Oh, where are they, I can’t find them.’ I feel comfortable there even though it is a new area for me to represent.”

And one longer-term goal…

7. Bolstering special education resources. “I want to take an in-depth look at how we are dealing with special education students. It’s near and dear to my own heart because of the difficulties my own son had getting what I thought was appropriate special needs services when he was in school [with ADHD] in L.A. Unified. … The complaints I’m getting [from parents] are that they don’t want the special education schools closed; that they’re being closed. They don’t want their kids to be mainstreamed, but they’re being mainstreamed. A lot of them do not believe that’s in the best interest of their children, and they’re very upset about that. That’s what I do not know about, so I have to look into that more deeply.”

About 11 percent of students in BD5 require special education services.

Runoff strategy

Q: What is your runoff strategy, and is it different from your initial campaign strategy?

A: “It’s not much different. We relied heavily on … canvassing and talking to people and meeting with people in their homes and emailing folks and answering specific questions every time we did a canvassing. We contact people to tell them that we think that this fight is about public education and the need to improve the funding of public education.”

Goldberg said earlier this month that she had 800 volunteers while campaigning in the primaries, in part because of vast union and educator support.

Q: Why do you think you’re the better candidate than Repenning?

A: “Well, for Heather there’s just the matter of a steep learning curve about education. If you were to ask me who would I go to if I had an issue with public works, it would be Heather, because she’s done that, knows it, she was vice president of the public works commission. She’s smart as a whip, and she’ll learn. But I will tell you that from my own personal experience it was a good two years before I felt comfortable that I had any real idea what was going on at LAUSD the first time I was there, because there’s a lot to know in a district this size. And that’s really the advantage. I hit the ground running and she would have a large learning curve.”

Q: What are the main criticisms of you that you expect to hear during the runoff campaign, and how would you respond?

A: During the primary campaign, SEIU Local 99 — a union representing education workers such as cafeteria staff that’s backing Repenning — “talk[ed] about cuts that I’ve made,” she said, referencing the millions board members cut from the 1991-92 budget at the end of Goldberg’s tenure. “Yes, I did, I made those cuts. But it doesn’t talk about the fact that we were in a deep recession when I made them, and it was that or take the district into bankruptcy.”

She added: “They talk about how I doubled my salary” during her fifth and sixth year on school board. “Well, it went from $12,000 to $24,000 … I ended up going into debt with my family that took me 16 years to get out of. But instead of saying, ‘Oh my god, for six years [she] was willing to work for $12,000 a year instead of the $34,000 [she] was making teaching’ … they attack me because I tried to raise the salary so someone other than the wealthy aristocracy” could serve on the board. “I know it’s going to happen. And it’ll make me sad. But you just live with it.”

Representing students

Q: How are students in BD5 performing? What’s at stake for them in this election?

A: “What happens is that the lower income the community, the more challenges there often are for kids who are in school. They aren’t any less intelligent than anyone else, and in fact in some ways they might be more intelligent because they’re figuring out how to survive in very desperate circumstances economically. But I do think that we have had probably 50 years of studies which show extreme correlation between being very low income and not doing well in school because of those challenges that come from poverty. So because we have high levels of poverty in Board District 5, we’ve got a lot of students who are not doing well.

We need to do a number of things to change that — the most important of which is to get to be $22,000 a year per kid in the schools,” which is around what New York, home to the country’s largest school district, spends to educate students. “That will change things dramatically, because then you lower class sizes, then you provide additional teaching assistance, then you provide additional assistant principals so that you have more folks that are looking out for and observing and taking care of the instructional program. So you just need more money first.”

Q: Do you understand the social, financial and cultural challenges of BD5 students?

A: “I pick a very diverse staff, and they will help me be informed on those things I know about and on the things that I don’t know anything about. It takes a good office to do things. I have an intellectual understanding of a great deal of the cultural issues of my board district, but I don’t have personal experience with it, so that’s what I need from other people. Basically, it’s about listening; that’s mostly what people have to do in public office.”

• Read more: 

More money, more charter school scrutiny: Here’s what Jackie Goldberg wants to bring to LAUSD in her bid to rejoin the school board after nearly 30 years

Heather Repenning enters the school board runoff vowing to address the need ‘to write a new chapter of change at LAUSD’

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