Chasing Dr. V

  • 09/26/2019
  • Terelle Jerricks

Candidates vying for Dr. Richard Vladovic’s seat will have some mighty big shoes to fill in 2020

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

When Dr. Richard Vladovic became president of the Los Angeles Unified’s board of education for the second time this past July, it marked the start of the final lap of his tenure. His term expires in 2020 and seven candidates aspire to succeed him, including a charter school authorizer for Los Angeles County’s board of education Silke Bradford, former Harbor Commissioner Patricia Castellanos and Boys and Girls Club executive director Mike Lansing.

Considering Vladovic’s record of accomplishments and the district’s challenges, his return to the school board presidency, with its visibility, resources and influence, could be consequential.

With Jackie Goldberg’s win at the ballot box, the board’s majority is again with forces who are critical of charter schools. Six of the board’s seven members supported Vladovic’s nomination, including the immediate past president, Mónica García, who’s had her disagreements with Vladovic in the past. Only Nick Melvoin voted “no.”

This past year, the district has contended with flare-ups associated with co-location — a controversial process in which existing public schools are chosen and forced to share their campus space with startup charter schools. The most recent example is Ganas Academy’s failed attempt to co-locate at Catskill Elementary in Carson.

Other controversies have included complaints over common core, teacher evaluations,  perennial underfunding of schools, and let’s not forget the iPad fiasco several years ago.

Vladovic is a former principal and administrator in the district. Before he was elected to represent San Pedro and parts of South LA on the board, he served as superintendent of the West Covina Unified School District from 2003 to 2006.

Curriculum and Expectations

To Vladovic, the school district’s number one mission is to assist young people in becoming successful in their lives and lifelong learners. He acknowledges it’s an unrelenting and ever-changing quest. He pointed to the basic nature of educational systems and the individual schools where they are applied, which are constantly receiving new crops of students, their similarities and differences demanding educational systems, environments and personnel that continually refocus while consistently maintaining high expectations. “To me,” Vladovic said, “that’s a continual challenge.”

In his mind, there’s no such thing as an “unteachable student.” If there’s a failure, the problem doesn’t lie with the student but the adult and the systems that are supposed to educate the student.

Vladovic’s earliest teaching assignment was Stephen M. White elementary school  in Carson during the 1960s, before Uncle Sam called him to the army during the Vietnam war in 1969.  Vladovic’s war experience didn’t include  front-line combat; instead, he led a unit in information technology. Looking back, Vladovic says his military experience instilled in him a conviction that has been a constant throughout his life and career — no child should be left again. “I took it personal when I gave an ‘F’,” Vladovic said. “It was my fault unless [the student] never came to school. I even went to their house.”

Vladovic likens school districts to triage in emergency rooms.

“These  kids come with needs, like they would at a hospital,” Vladovic said. “We need to expect that, then we do everything we can, and then do it again. Because I truly believe that this urban [school] district can make a difference.”

Vladovic does not like how the politics, things he calls “adult issues,” affect children. The closest he comes to talking about politics is to reference the toxic nature of political discourse — inspired in part by the current occupants of the White House —and its impact on education.

“I’ll tell you what’s dragging us down,” he said. “It’s the socio-economic issues. The government fosters harm and anxiety and pits people against people.

“If  youngsters feel you care and you believe in them, they will do everything they can to meet that expectation, “ Vladivic said. “I truly believe that’s a struggle and that we have to keep our eye on the ball as a board member. This whole district should be about kids. Everything else is to get there.”

Vladovic firmly believes that the keys to meeting the challenges the district faces are curriculum and continuing to drive students to excellence through high expectations and budgeting to support excellent outcomes.

That does not mean he believes money is a cure-all. He noted that the state of California in per student spending ranks 45th out of the 50 states.

“We have sound practices, but California spends a lot more money on things other than schools,” Vladovic said. “Money is not a cure all, but it does allow us to do things that we ordinarily don’t have the budget to do.”

As an example, Vladovic cited a test program called Reading Recovery. “When I was a superintendent, we achieved almost 100 percent reading rates,” Vladovic said. “A teacher would spend one-half hour, one-on-one with a single kid — a specially trained teacher from Cal State San Bernardino. They would train the teachers and their aids. The program was expensive, but every kid learned to read.”

Vladovic then leaned in and asked, “what if we gathered all of the lowest performing kids in reading into that program… and instead of one-on-one teacher ratio, we go for a one-on-three?”

Vladovic rightfully got to pop his collar on his role in bringing equity to inner-city schools, including the $176 million rehabilitation of Jordan High School and nine other schools deemed the oldest in the district, including  Garfield and San Pedro High School, which is next in line for a makeover.

Underfunding Expectations

Vladovic is pointedly critical of what he sees as the state’s onerous budgetary requirements to create a budget three years in advance as well as strictness  of districts funding requirements.

“People complain to me that we’re wasting money,” Vladovic observed… .but money comes to us in stovepipes. You can’t mix some… you can’t mix cafeteria lunch here… bond funds you can’t use here… English language learner funds can only be used there … it’s a mishmash and the state makes you do a three-year budget, but only gives you money for the first and has you speculate on the other two years. So the budget system is crazy and I blame the state.”

Vladovic said the calendar drives everything. It must be remembered that the state’s general budget calendar begins in early January and includes approximately 60 different dates or action steps that are related to the governor’s budget development, which leads to a signed budget at the governor’s desk in June. A school district’s budget is not even known until the state government completes its May revision.

“You have to notice employees in March if you don’t have enough money to fill positions,” Vladovic explained. “That’s five months later. So sometimes you have to send notices to people and it disrupts their whole life.”

Teachers and other school employees can’t even get a home loan because school districts have to tell them what their chances are of having a job and somebody may show them that letter. So the system and the calendar that the state operates on are crazy.

Vladovic looks at budgets differently. A good educator plans the educational program then figures out how to pay for it, Vladovic said. “But because of the state, we have to limit our dreams,” Vladovic said. “We should never limit dreams for kids. That’s just me.”

Technology —  The Third Challenge

Vladovic sees technology and the way it fits  the district’s educational organization as well as its instructional system as the third major challenge.

“You saw the fiasco several years ago on giving [away] iPads, but at some point we’re going to have to deal with… as all education will… this new information revolution,” Vladovic said.

When it comes to students’ attention spans, Vladovic recognizes that educators have stiff competition from television, the internet and technology in general. The question for him has always been, “How do we harness technology for the broader educational good?”

“We have a lot of kids that are not reading at grade level but every one of them can pick this up and read every instruction and follow it,” Vladoic said. “I’ve never seen a kid fail Drivers-Ed because they couldn’t read. So we need to figure out those things.”

At times Vladovic’s responses take on a stream of consciousness sensibility, one idea bleeding into the next, particularly on the subject of the role of technology and its high cost.

“We need to understand it and we need to plan how we are going to utilize it,” said the long-time educator, “because technology now, if it goes down, you’ll see how dependent we are.”

You don’t ever buy programs anymore, he notes. You lease them. You understand from big companies that sell the licensing to the programs, Vladovic said.

Charter Schools — Equity in Burdens and Benefit

“I wanted a moratorium,” Vladovic said. “A good educator does something then they sit back and evaluate it. That’s in all of education. I’m not anti-anything, but that law has existed for 30 years. But we never stopped and observed the educational impact, the economic impact or the social impact.”

Vladovic noted that he authored a motion for a moratorium on new charter schools, without co-sponsors, believing the move would be too controversial and risky for others to follow suit.

“I’m at a place where I’m convinced co-location does not work. I’ve said so publicly because I, as an educator, taught people to love each other,” Vladovic said.

“In the years I’ve been on the board, I never once saw anyone say, ‘I love this co-location.’ I wouldn’t throw out the ones that are there but you have to convince me,” Vladovic said.

Vladovic cited as a particular cause of concern a UTLA presentation on charters not taking special education students.

“I’m concerned about schools. I’m not concerned about who runs them,” Vladovic said. “But I am concerned if running these schools hurts the district’s ability to achieve its mission.”

Vladovic said he didn’t want to end up with a district made up of only struggling students and the rest being cherry-picked. He hedged comments with admission that he did not know that this was indeed a fact with charter schools.

“The law doesn’t give us choices. Legally we have to vote for charters unless legally it is educationally unsound or financially unsound,” Vladovic said.

Vladovic confided that he didn’t want to run for school board in the first place. When he ran in 2007, he had just retired, but was still teaching at Dominguez part-time after teaching for 20 years. And he was in the Army Reserve for 20 years.

“I wanted to stay that way, but somebody said there’s a need, you better do it. I’ve given up my passion to do this,” Vladovic said. “It’s not fun [being on the school board]. But it’s something I feel obligated to do. I’ve committed to this place. I love public schools. That’s the hope of this democracy.”

In one of his final anecdotes before he concluded our interview, Vladovic recounted the moment he was told that he had been appointed to Locke High School.

Vladovic, reenacting the moment he got the news, burst as if he were a kid who was told he was going to Disneyland.

“When do I get there?” Vladovic said.  “I want to go. I can’t wait.” At the time, Vladovic was across the street at Gompers and was loving it.

“I felt I was needed and I was wanted,” Vladovic said. “I gotta tell ya, adults can’t see a phony. Kids can. They know if you like them or not and they know if you’re a phony. I love being in schools. I don’t love being down here.”

There are seven candidates running to replace Dr. Vladovic in March 2020. At least two, maybe three, appear to be legitimate contenders if fundraising, endorsements and name recognition can be used as measuring sticks. Voters can only hope that the next person they elevate to the  District 7 board seat is as real as Dr. V.

I knew going in I wasn’t going to get the 45 minutes to an hour time required to do a proper interview with a man who has served at every level of education in the Los Angeles Unified School    District over a span of 50 years.

The very fact that the interview was taking place at the school district offices on Beaudry told me my interview may last all of 15 minutes, crammed before other appointments the busy board president had for the day. Affectionately known as Mr. V by any who have had him as a teacher, Vladovic’s warmth and passion for students pushed aside all thoughts of time.

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