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Learning Curves

L.A. School Board in Limbo After Member’s Felony Plea

A troubled charter-school advocate calls it quits — but not before participating in a string of key policy votes.

Bill Raden

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Ref Rodriguez photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

The three-year scandal that has embroiled the Los Angeles Unified school board concluded anticlimactically this week when besieged District 5 board member Ref Rodriguez tendered his resignation. The bow-out followed a Monday court appearance in which Ref pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and three misdemeanors connected to his laundering $24,000 of his own cash during his successful 2015 election campaign.

It ended an ethically challenged 10 months in which Ref’s legal bills were paid by his lone legal-defense fund donor – billionaire charter school enthusiast and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. The patronage had kept alive LAUSD’s slim, 4-3 pro-charter school board majority as it doggedly ticked off a dream list of California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) wins. Gut “district required language” for charter petitions? Check. Deny CCSA bête noire Ken Bramlett a contract renewal as inspector general? Check. Hire non-educator venture capitalist Austin Beutner as a disruption-prone superintendent? Check.

The suddenly even-split LAUSD board now has 60 days to either appoint a successor or to follow recent board precedent by letting District 5 voters decide in a special election.

One group paying close attention will be L.A. teachers, whose union on Tuesday submitted its “last, best and final offer” in contract talks that it says have again ground to a deadlock. “Anti-union, pro-privatization ideologues are currently running the school district but are setting us up for failure,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl charged in a statement. The district has 48 hours to respond to the LBFO.

One of California’s most notorious charter corruption cases reemerged last week with the announcement of a court settlement stemming from 2017’s catastrophic failure of Tri-Valley Learning Corporation (TVLC). The undisclosed payment to bond trustee UMB Bank, by municipal bond law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, was for its part in brokering a 2012 bond issue for the Livermore-based charter management organization.

This latest fallout covers only a fraction of the $67 million in tax-exempt, facilities-funding bonds at the center of a bankruptcy that affected over 1,200 students and shuttered four TVLC schools.

The closures led to a devastating June, 2017 audit by the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, which forwarded multiple allegations of possible fraud and misappropriation of assets against Tri-Valley and its former CEO, Bill Batchelor, to the Alameda County DA. It also resulted in state Assembly calls for closing regulatory loopholes that have allowed millions of dollars to be converted into the private real estate holdings of limited liability companies and charter management organizations.

“There is no authority, body [or] entity that I know of that [a charter management organization] has to answer other than to a self-selected board of directors,” testified Livermore Unified superintendent Kelly Bowers at 2017 Education Committee hearings.

Outraged California public school and community college teachers converged on a CalSTRS Teachers’ Retirement Board meeting in West Sacramento last week to demand that the $224 billion pension fund divest itself of about $13 million of investments in for-profit prison operators CoreCivic Inc. and the GEO Group.

The Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy has meant booming business for both companies, which together operate around 50 facilities of various types in California, including a CoreCivic ICE prison in San Diego and a GEO Group detention center in Adelanto that are being sued by detainees over the alleged use of forced labor and other practices.

“We’ve collectively put decades [of our lives] into California, into raising up diverse communities,” declared De Anza College professor Miriam Martín of the activist group Together We Will-San Jose, “and we didn’t do that to profit off of the criminalization of migration and the locking up of kids of color.”

CalSTRS Chief Investment Officer Christopher Ailman told the CalSTRS Investment Committee that he would order a review.


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