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Both charter school advocates and the local teachers union are backing current Los Angeles Unified school board President Kelly Gonez in her bid for reelection – a much different story than five years ago when the race in District 6 pitted the two groups against each other in one of the most expensive school board elections in LAUSD history.

Back then, Gonez had the support of education reformers but not that of United Teachers Los Angeles. This time around, she’s got both groups backing her, as well as Service Employees International Union Local 99 and the California School Employees Association Local 500, which represent the district’s classified workers.

But two groups who aren’t endorsing her are the unions representing management and rank-and-file officers for the Los Angeles School Police Department. Those unions have endorsed Jesus (“Jess”) Arana, a police sergeant who has worked in the department for 24 years.

Arana is running on a platform that includes bringing officers back onto school grounds. Gonez had voted during her first term to cut funding to the police department and to remove officers from campus.

The third candidate in District 6 – which represents families in East San Fernando Valley – is Marvin Rodríguez, a high school Spanish teacher who also opposes having cops on campuses.

Below, the candidates elaborated on their positions regarding school police. They also weighed in on other issues that are top of mind for many in L.A. Unified, including staff recruitment and retention, declining enrollment and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

School police

In June 2020, after the killing of George Floyd sparked a national outcry for police reform, the LAUSD school board slashed about a third of its police department’s budget and decided to move officers off campuses at the urging of activists who said many Black and Latino students felt criminalized by police.

There have been ongoing debates about whether officers should be on campuses – or, at least, whether principals should have the ability to request an officer for their school. Already this school year, incidents such as an alleged sexual assault, stabbing, nearby shooting and fights have been reported on or near campuses.

According to Arana, incident rates have increased since 2019, when officers were still on campuses. The district’s crime statistics for the current school year have not been shared publicly.

“When parents drop off their children at school, they expect their children to be safe,” he said. “No parent should have to worry about their kid being a victim of sexual assault or gang violence.”

Arana said having officers at schools would serve as a deterrent to inappropriate behavior. At the same time, he said that while officers are required to make arrests if certain crimes are committed, such as a robbery or domestic violence, other actions, such as fighting on campus, are misdemeanors. He does not feel students should be arrested in such cases.

The other candidates in the race disagree that officers should be brought back.

Gonez, without providing her source, said data suggests there hasn’t been an increase in violent incidents compared to pre-pandemic times. Further, she said school police currently operate in a patrol model and can quickly respond to incidents that arise, which she says occur more often outside of school than on campus.

“Instead of reverting to the old system of policing, which made too many students feel unwelcome and unfairly targeted, we need to continue pursuing alternative, proactive strategies to prevent violence,” she said. “Restorative justice, mental health support, safe passages to and from school, and other programs can have a measurable impact on keeping our students safe and supported in our schools.”

Rodríguez said he doesn’t believe there’s “ever a right time” to have officers in schools.

“There’s a role for police to be played, but I don’t see how police should be housed on campus. That should not be the first option that we look to,” he said, adding that “firm but compassionate” restorative justice measures will lessen the reliance on school police to deal with behavioral issues.

Staffing shortages

Last year, the school board planned to hire additional teachers, counselors, nurses and other positions as part of a COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan. But a labor shortage left thousands of positions unfilled, and the superintendent has temporarily deployed hundreds of non-classroom staff into classrooms.

All three candidates spoke of offering competitive wages and benefits to attract and retain staff.

Gonez also proposed that the district explore ways to support affordable housing and child care, and to advocate for lowering costs for employees who wish to pursue a higher education. Additionally, she proposed providing training and career advancement opportunities and supportive work environments.

In the meantime, Gonez proposed that the mental health experts who are available be assigned to highest-needs schools. She similarly suggested the district increase its partnerships with organizations that can provide supports and to prioritize partnerships in the neediest neighborhoods.

Like Gonez, Arana suggested the district partner with outside organizations, including colleges, mental health organizations and nonprofits, to provide academic and social-emotional supports to students. This includes recruiting college students to work for L.A. Unified and providing paid internships for students in credentialing programs or a student loan forgiveness program for classified employees who wish to become teachers or counselors.

He also proposed that L.A. Unified train students so that they can earn certificates and be ready to work as school bus drivers, food service workers or other positions within the district the moment they graduate high school.

In terms of retention, Arana said the district should give teachers more say in their individual school’s budget as a way to empower them.

Both he and Rodríguez said the district should stop attempting to strip away or pare down health and retirement benefits, which they said would make LAUSD less attractive to current and potential employees.

The district “must understand that to be successful at meeting the needs of our students, they must also meet the professional and social-emotional needs of the people it employs,” said Rodríguez, adding that the district should show respect for employees by ensuring their well-being.

Declining enrollment

Decreasing birth rates, high housing costs driving families out of L.A., and parents choosing charter or private schools have contributed to the district’s declining enrollment trend. In the past five years alone, K-12 enrollment has dropped nearly 12%, according to state data.

To combat this, Rodríguez recommends expanding community schools that offer “wrap-around services” such as health clinics, nutrition classes and other supports and resources for families. He’s also advocating for further investments in early education programs.

Like Rodríguez, Gonez identified community schools and an investment in early education as ways to attract or retain families. Last year, she sponsored a board resolution to provide universal preschool.

“It allows us to immediately enroll more students in our schools, close opportunity gaps before they begin … and allows more families to get to know the great offerings in L.A. Unified so that they choose to stay with us in later grades,” she said.

Gonez also spoke of increasing dual-language and magnet programs and exploring opportunities to build affordable housing for families.

For his part, Arana, said the district should revamp its career technical education program and that every high school should offer training and certificates in trade skills, such as plumbing, welding, carpentry and electrical work. Additionally, every elementary and middle school should offer “meaningful” afterschool programs that include tutoring or homework help, organized sports and enrichment classes such as robotics or computer coding.

Vaccine mandates

Although the school board is expected to vote on whether to postpone its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for students 12 and older, current indications suggest district officials intend to ultimately enforce it. LAUSD’s vaccination mandate for staff is still in effect.

The candidates were asked – before the district announced that it might hold off on enforcing its student vaccine mandate this fall — whether L.A. Unified should require staff or students to get their COVID-19 shots.

“Although my family and I are vaccinated, I am pro-choice on COVID-19 mandates for students and staff,” Arana said, adding that he would advocate to rescind the vaccine mandates and offer jobs back to employees who were fired, placed on leave or reassigned after failing to get vaccinated.

The other two candidates support the vaccination mandates. Rodríguez called it a “moral and professional obligation” to ensure students’ safety and Gonez said vaccines remain the single best way to limit virus transmission and protect communities.

Endorsements and donations

With the primary set for June 7, the candidates are working to secure endorsements and financial support for their campaigns. Local officials who have endorsed Gonez include L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and more than a half-dozen state lawmakers.

The other two candidates did not list endorsements on their websites, though Arana provided the names of nearly a dozen groups representing police officers who he said support him. Campaign finance records also show that many of his donors are officers or groups representing law enforcement.

In terms of fundraising, through April 23, Gonez had raised $247,747 – more than five times greater than her two rivals combined. She had more than $96,000 left in her account after spending on campaign-related expenses, according to campaign finance statements reported to the city’s Ethics Commission.

SEIU Local 99 has also spent nearly $6,000 in independent expenditures in support of Gonez. She’s the only candidate in the race to have an outside group independently spend money on their behalf.

In the meantime, through April 23, Arana had raised $34,690 – which included about $1,348 in loans to himself – and had more than $16,000 left after expenses. Rodríguez had raised $9,325, which included a $6,000 self-loan, and had an ending balance of more than $4,000.


Jesus (“Jess”) Arana

Arana, 44, grew up in Pacoima, San Fernando and Sun Valley and currently lives in Sun Valley. He has five children – four biological and a foster child. His children graduated from or still attend San Fernando High, Porter Middle School and Fernangeles Elementary.

OCCUPATION: Sergeant with the Los Angeles School Police Department (has worked for the department for 24 years).

BACKGROUND: Raised by a single mother who had him when she was a teen, Arana and his two siblings participated in afterschool programs through the Boys & Girls Club in Pacoima. He began volunteering there in high school and has been a volunteer coach in L.A. Unified for 27 years. An Army veteran, Arana has coached wrestling at San Fernando High School, where he started the school’s first girls wrestling team as well as a youth wrestling program.

Through the police department, Arana has overseen programs for students interested in careers in law enforcement, such as Police Explorers and a police academy magnet program, as well as the Police Activities League, which fosters engagement between officers and youth. He was named School Resource Officer of the Year in 2014 by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“I have worked in just about every district and neighborhood from San Pedro to Sylmar,” Arana said. “My deep-rooted community work with socioeconomically challenged children exponentially surpasses that of any other candidate. I have spent my own time and money on establishing and directing afterschool programs aimed at keeping kids off the streets and away from drugs.”

He has a master’s degree in public administration from Cal State Northridge.

PRIORITIES: Make schools safer; Increase parent and community voice in district decisions; and increase college and career readiness, with an emphasis on trade skills.

Kelly Gonez

Born and raised within L.A. Unified’s boundaries, Gonez, 33, grew up in a self-described “working immigrant family” and now lives in North Hollywood. She has two boys, ages 3 and 1.

OCCUPATION: LAUSD school board president (elected to board in 2017).

BACKGROUND: Gonez made history in December 2020 when she became the youngest woman to serve as president of L.A. Unified’s school board. She previously taught geometry at a high school and science to middle school students at two district-authorized charter schools. From 2014-16, she served as an education policy advisor in President Obama’s administration. Gonez has a master’s degree in urban education from Loyola Marymount University, according to her profile on the district’s website.

As the only current board member with young children, Gonez noted that she’s “given birth twice while in office.” Last spring, she sponsored a resolution committing the district to provide universal preschool by the 2024-25 school year. Gonez also noted that the number of dual-language programs in District 6 has tripled and that magnet programs have increased during her tenure.

“With the LAUSD headquarters so physically far from our neighborhoods, our school board representative must be a strong advocate for the Valley,” she said. “I am the right candidate to continue our COVID recovery efforts and the equitable transformation of our public schools so that they can provide an excellent education for all kids.”

PRIORITIES: Implement universal preschool and high-quality early education programs; incorporate equity into every district policy, including continuing to advocate for equitable funding to support highest-needs students; and increase college and career readiness.

Marvin Rodríguez

Rodríguez, 42, immigrated to Southern California at age 6. He previously lived in Pacoima but has called Arleta home for seven years. He has two daughters – one at Grover Cleveland Charter High School and a kindergartner at Haddon Avenue STEAM Academy.

OCCUPATION: Spanish teacher at Grover Cleveland Charter High School.

BACKGROUND: Rodríguez has taught for 17 years, first at Magnolia Science Academy, an independent charter school in Reseda, before joining Grover Cleveland Charter High School, an LAUSD-affiliated school, eight years ago. Rodríguez said he currently does not support charter schools that aren’t affiliated with L.A. Unified because he feels they compete for the same resources as the district.

“My 17 years of classroom teaching experience in Title I Schools have allowed me to see firsthand and understand the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students, especially those in our most vulnerable communities,” he said.

In addition to teaching, Rodríguez volunteers as a coach in a program that trains students for the L.A. Marathon. The former U.S. Marine earned his master’s degree in multicultural education, with an emphasis on second language acquisition, from National University.

PRIORITIES: Expand community schools with wraparound services; expand early education programs; and invest in special education centers and expand access to special day classes for students with disabilities.

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