- James Preston Allen
It would be easy to overlook the upcoming Los Angeles Unified School District school board race as most of the current political environment is being consumed by Donald Trump’s impeachment and the crowd of Democrats running to replace him. However on the very same March primary ballot in California voters will decide who should replace Dr. Richard Vladovic for the seat representing the South district which encompasses the communities of Watts, Carson and all of Los Angeles City Council district 15, as well as Gardena and Lomita.
Before the Christmas break, Random Lengths solicited responses to a questionnaire from the top five candidates running for the seat based on fundraising totals through the end of 2019. The questions covered positions on charter schools, school funding and special education.
Random Lengths will feature the candidates’ responses to those questions in the Jan. 23 and Feb. 3 editions. Voters in Los Angeles County now have 11 consecutive days to vote in-person at Any Vote Center in the County. Voting begins February 22 and will be available through 8 p.m. on Election Day.
What follows are the responses to the issues that Vladovic brought up previously as his concerns for the school district. – JP Allen, Publisher.
1. In his interview with Random Lengths News, Dr. Richard Vladovic cited the current national climate inciting fear and anxiety amongst LAUSD students. What can the district, schools and schools staff do to better shield students from this fear and anxiety, if anything?
As a parent of a first grader attending an LAUSD school, I entrust my daughter to our neighborhood school—not only for her learning but also for her safety and well-being.
Unfortunately, our national climate of division can stir fear and anxiety amongst LAUSD students. Even my own daughter, a second-generation U.S. citizen, after watching the news, has asked more than once if there were any chance of our family being separated. Our schools should be positive learning environments for all students. We know that academic success in the classroom is linked to a whole range of social, economic and emotional factors outside the classroom. That’s one of the reasons I helped co-found an education coalition called Reclaim Our Schools LA, which has advocated for health and social services to meet our children where they are—including students dealing with fear/anxiety and emotional trauma. LAUSD must uphold its commitment to a full-time nurse in every school and support staff such as counselors, mental health professionals and social workers. LAUSD should also partner with the County Department of Mental Health and other local and state agencies to complement
supports for students and their families as well as school employees. As the second largest school district in the nation, LAUSD can play an important role in promoting inclusion within our diverse student population. In addition to addressing a climate of fear, we must do everything within the law to protect LAUSD families (students and employees) from laws being pushed by the Trump administration that threaten to divide our communities and strip away much needed resources from families.
Beyond the federal government’s actions and rhetoric regarding deportations causing legitimate anxiety for many families, all of our kids and families likely suffer from fears around school safety. This anxiety was not birthed on a national level, but right here in our own backyards. Gun violence in and around schools is something that hits far too close to home for many of us on a regular basis. School communities are burdened by the trauma of extreme violence, but also by more subtle and insidious bullying that can take place 24/7 due to students’ access to peers outside of the school day via social media. All of the above are stressors that lead to both physical and mental health issues for even our youngest children. These factors weigh heavily on teachers, support staff and school leaders to address, but unfortunately our schools lack an adequate number of trained staff to meet students’ needs. California is ranked a dismal 48th in the nation in the student to adult staff member ratio. Kids need more access to caring adults on a school campus, which can be achieved through the expansion of elective/extra-curricular activity staffing and repurposing central office roles to become more site-based. More adults can then better supervise kids and act as supportive mentors as students process personal or community trauma, which is key to decreasing fears and anxiety that can lead to more bullying, violence and self-harm both on and off campus.
I also support the California surgeon general (Burke Harris) in her call to screen for trauma so that it can be addressed in a systematic fashion. As public health and public education are often intertwined and it would behoove both sectors to work together to ensure that our kids get the social-emotional and mental health supports that we know they
School and district staff can absolutely serve as protective factors for our students, families and employees in the current national climate of fear and anxiety that is particularly acute for communities of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folks and low-income communities. By building, sustaining and repairing relationships through a restorative justice and social-emotional approach, school and district personnel can help all stakeholders feel safe, loved and valued on and around school campuses. Particular staff members such as psychiatric social workers, counselors, and psychologists have a special role to play in directly supporting mental health needs, but all staff members play a role in preventing and intervening in harm (even institutional and historical harm) in healthy ways that focus on learning and healing. This includes community building, providing access to neighborhood resources, and direct and integrated instruction in social-emotional skills as well as student and family rights. Together, we all have the collective power to cultivate safe and welcoming school communities.
Students need to know they will be safe at school and that they will have the academic and social/emotional support they need to fully develop their potential. We must put many more resources/caring adults in our schools to provide much safer school environments and the academic opportunities our students require – especially at the high school level where our students of color are often short-changed in terms of the academic access and support they need and deserve. My College Bound program and our professional staff serves over 1,700 students annually – with a 99 percent graduation rate and over 90 percent going to college. Finally, prioritizing the needs of our high school students will be an investment that will bring results similar to College Bound and will negate our prejudice-empowering president and those he emboldens. As a society and academic community, we continue to focus additional resources in early education with little additional support and strategies in our high schools to assure our students successfully “finish” the K-12 leg of their education. We must provide academic support and college pathway resources at all of our high schools to provide both hope and opportunity for our students and overcome some of their anxiety regarding their current and future lives. Success will usually overcome fear and anxiety – we must truly help our high school students be successful and have a true post-high school plan and pathway. As a school board member from 1999-2007, my initiative to increase the number of high school counselors was approved. This required tradeoffs and coalition-building but was successful even in difficult budget times.
2. Dr. Richard Vladovic cited perennial underfunding of school districts, caused in part by the stove-piping of funds and the state requirement that school districts submit budgets that project three years into the future, as challenges the board must give priority and solve. Do you agree? If so, what steps should be taken to address this issue?
California used to rank fifth in the nation in funding for public education. Today we are ranked near the bottom. This funding crisis affects our ability to reduce class sizes, expand arts programs, hire a full-time nurse in every school and bring other necessary resources to our schools. I support the notion that California should be able to match New York’s per-pupil funding of $26,000. In addition to looking for more funding in the LAUSD budget, I will join forces with other school board members to fight for more funding from every level—city, county, state and federal—to fully fund our public schools.
The underfunding of schools is caused by the fact that California ranks a dismal 41st in school funding, even though California alone represents the fifth-largest economy in the world. The Schools and Communities First Funding Act is a statewide ballot initiative that voters should pass so that we can close the Prop 13 loophole where large companies have shirked paying their fair share of property taxes, while the rest of California property owners like myself have paid more than enough. The California School Board Association and the Association of California School Administrators is calling for state legislators to shift budget priorities to adequately fund California schools so we no longer rank at the bottom of the nation as it comes to per-pupil spending and student to adult ratios. The passage of one, both or a synthesized version of these two initiatives would provide California kids the world-class education they deserve and adults working in LAUSD more fair compensation in sustainable roles where they will no longer have to do the job of multiple people due to understaffing.
We absolutely need to collectively increase the budget for LAUSD and more equitably distribute and sustain resources, particularly for our most historically underserved communities so that all schools and all students have what they need to excel. We should aggressively seek additional local, state, federal, and philanthropic funding in collaboration with government, business and community partners. School site leadership teams deserve more accurate and timely information and control over their budgets, including a multi-year view, that includes all budget allocations distributed well before hiring decisions must be finalized. The District should allocate all $1 billion Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) supplemental and concentration funds through the Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) and should fully consider all options for stabilizing the budget including district real estate, creative campus configurations, and benefit choices for new employees. The District must prioritize these decisions and make them in collaboration with our courageous labor partners, community members and professional experts.
Underfunding of our schools is a sad fact. When I graduated from San Pedro High School, California was in the top five states of school funding. Today we are in the bottom five. School boards must assure “fiscal stability” and the current fact is that LAUSD will be operating at a $500 million deficit both this school year and next and will basically eliminate a $1 billion reserve. The real question is what is going to happen in the third year when there will be no reserve and possibly the need for $500 million or more in budget cuts if no additional revenues are provided?
These fiscal realities need to be addressed now and not when it is too late. This fiscal responsibility is a major responsibility of all school board members and often requires tough decisions —but decisions that must be made while always putting students and school sites first. I have the successful experience in my previous eight years on the school board and in my own 25 years of nonprofit leadership to make these tough and prioritized fiscal decisions should additional revenues not be available.
3. In explaining the over-representation of African Americans and Latinos in special ed programs, Dr. Vladovic said school systems in general confuse skill acquisition with special education. Do you agree? If so, what changes do you propose to address this issue?
There are differing perspectives on whether students of color are over- or under-identified in special education programs. It may be that there is truth to both sides. It is important to correctly identify which students need access to special education programs and ensure that they get it. The district must also better engage parents of children with Individualized Education Programs or section 504 protections so they understand more about what support is available and are empowered to advocate for their children.
(Section 504 is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. A root cause of this problem is the systemic underfunding of special education. For too long, the federal government has failed in its obligation to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Over the past 13 years, Congress has failed to appropriate $347 billion towards the education of low-income, primarily black and brown students. Since 2005, Congress has shortchanged states $233 billion in funding that should have gone to provide services to students with disabilities. LAUSD must galvanize other school boards, state legislators and special education advocates to redirect federal funding that is overdue and owed to California and our students.
The over representation of students of color in special education is rooted in multiple factors. The first is that there is often a lack of cultural competence on the part of those referring children for testing and/or conducting the testing. This has to be remedied via implicit bias training, as well as providing more support in the form of professional development and staffing (i.e aides) to support students in the general education classroom.
As it relates to developmental delays in children, there are also environmental factors that have an impact on learning such as exposure to lead-based paint, contaminated water and pollutants in neighborhoods. Other factors are racially-segregated neighborhoods and the environmental injustices experienced in black and brown communities that negatively impact residents’ health.
Finally, and of most concern, studies have found that there is a different level of services provided to black and brown students in special education as compared to similar peers. Meaning even though students of color are over-identified for special education, they are grossly underserved in terms of the services and support they are provided as compared to white peers with the same disabilities.
All of these issues need to be top of mind for board members to ensure that LAUSD leadership/staff address these critical issues. Not doing so not only damages our children, but it also results in costly special education legal battles and mediation.
My personal and professional background in special education and working as a school principal and district level senior director has prepared me to provide much-needed policy leadership and accountability on the LAUSD Board of Education.
I agree that we must thoughtfully address the inequities in our system across racial lines, including how students are served and the academic and social-emotional outcomes we help them achieve. The overrepresentation of African American students in special education – especially for particular eligibilities – is often due to the structure of school and the need to incorporate various learning styles during classroom instruction. We can address this with more support for teacher planning and professional development as well as reciprocal learning between educators and families to reduce bias and build understanding. Latinx students are often overrepresented in special education when they are also English Language Learners and we must take care to address language needs differently from needs related to disabilities. We can do better by all students and especially for our most marginalized students by regularly analyzing and responding to various points of data, by having authentic conversations with school leaders and staff about strategic support for students, and by meaningfully including our families as the experts they are of their children’s learning.
This goes back to my concern that not enough resources are provided at our school sites to assure the best opportunities for skill acquisition and academic success for our students. And once again, I believe we must be spending much more money at our high school sites – my College Bound program has proven that this investment produces great results and academic success. As the School Board member for District 7 this is the budgeting strategy I would advocate: Everything needed at our schools is budgeted first and then see what is left over for local district offices and downtown. This much-needed school site budgeting prioritization would greatly support skill acquisition and help address the over representation of students of color in special education programs. If we do not invest more in skill acquisition and just eliminate a number of incorrect designations, this does nothing to help students learn and be academically successful.
Correctly designate students and invest in solving the current skill acquisition issue and you solve the problem – otherwise we only correctly designate students but at the same time we doom them to academic failure which is a much larger injustice.