New LAUSD board to take on persistent problems

Empty school desks are ready for students to fill them.
Empty school desks are ready for students to fill them.
Alex Wong / Getty Images

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When the Los Angeles Unified School District's two new board members take their seats, they'll face this glaring projection for the next school year: the district will have about 5,000 fewer students.

Tuesday's general election swept out two incumbents in a continuing show of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. But it also swept in board members who are on opposite sides of an ongoing political power struggle between charter school interests and the teachers union.

After millions in campaign contributions and a dismal school board turnout of 7.6 percent of registered voters, the result was a political draw between the two forces. 

Declining enrollment makes it all the more challenging for the new board to invest in improvements to stem the exodus. Each student who leaves is a loss of about $10,000 in state funds.

Scott Schmerelson, board member-elect for the West San Fernando Valley's District 3, said piquing parents interest so they send or keep their children in the district comes down to creating successful schools. 

"It's not to fight with charter schools, but let them know traditional public schools have a lot to offer – open the doors, let them see," Schmerelson said Wednesday.

L.A. Unified's shrinking student numbers can be attributed in part to fewer school aged-children in Los Angeles County, and the growth in charter schools. Charters serve nearly 100,000 of the district's 650,000 students. 

Ref Rodriguez, board member-elect for east Los Angeles and a charter school administrator, suggests all schools start sharing best practices in educating students.

"And, charter schools have a great role around incubation, but this is happening at many schools across this district," he said. 

Board President Richard Vladvoic, the only contested incumbent who held on to his seat Tuesday, said the district could start making traditional schools more attractive by presenting parents with more choices.

"We may need, as a board, to offer more thematic schools and more alternatives," Vladovic said. Options may include expanding magnet school offerings that can tailor instruction based on students' interests or creating small learning communities with more individualized teaching. 

While Gov. Jerry Brown's latest revised budget calls for billions more in K-12 spending statewide, much of the new funding will be one-time allocations, while falling enrollment has long-term implications.

The new board may find itself facing a choice: find ways to increase enrollment or shave services.

The new board members will be sworn in July 1.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave a wrong description for the district won by Ref Rodriguez.