Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez
Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez
Ted Soqui

Who Will Replace Disgraced President Ref Rodriguez on LAUSD Board?

The criminal saga of former Los Angeles Unified School District Board president Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez ended last week with resignation from the board and his plea on laundering campaign contributions, but the political fallout is far from over.

Already there is pushback against a proposal by Rodriguez’s former board colleagues to appoint his successor rather than holding a special election, and former LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg has expressed interest in filling Rodriguez’s seat — at least temporarily.

“I am seeking the appointment but would not run for either a special election or in 2020,” Goldberg, a former state assemblywoman, told L.A. Weekly.

Goldberg emphasized that she had no desire to serve beyond the remainder of Rodriguez’s term.

Rodriguez, who was elected to the board in 2015, entered a guilty plea on July 23 to one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed-name contribution and four misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contribution. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and 60 days of community service.

For nearly a year, Rodriguez batted aside calls to step down, and throughout his attorneys denied any illegal conduct. But after his sentencing, Rodriguez seemed more contrite.

“It has been the honor of my life to serve the communities of Board District 5 as their L.A. Unified board member. I have spent my adult life working to improve educational conditions for students who come from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up, with parents who worked hard like mine did for me,” Rodriguez wrote on his Twitter account after the sentencing. “My life's work has been to serve others. It will remain the same — I will just pursue that work from a different position. I am sorry for the mistakes I have made. I wish all of my colleagues the best as they continue this critical work."

Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, Rodriguez’s cousin who worked on his campaign, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contribution and will not face jail time.

Interim LAUSD board president Monica García and vice president Nick Melvoin issued a statement after Rodriguez resigned, suggesting the board would eventually call for a special election to fill the vacancy. “We hope to convene the board in the coming weeks to collaboratively decide the path forward, within the parameters of the process governed by the Los Angeles City Charter," the statement said.

“While we would like to ensure no break in representation for District 5 by appointing a temporary voting representative as soon as possible, we would also like to call a special election to fill the vacancy as soon as we can,” the statement continued. “A board majority will have to agree to a plan.”

The state Fair Political Practices Commission filed a complaint against Rodriguez — a former executive at the Partnership to Uplift Communities, a nonprofit charter school network — for allegedly transferring nearly $300,000 between March and October of 2014 from the charter organizations to two businesses where he had personal connections.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles District Attorney‘s office, Shiara Dávila-Morales, declined to comment on whether her office would pursue criminal charges against Rodriguez.

Ben Austin, a former executive director of the charter-affiliated Parent Revolution and the current executive director of the Kids Coalition, did not respond to inquiries regarding Rodriguez’s downfall.

The Kids Coalition describes itself as an organization designed to “empower” parents and students in public education with a “kids-first” agenda.

The California Charter Schools Association, which backed Rodriguez in his 2015 campaign, has not commented on Rodriguez either.

At a Dec. 9, 2015, CCSA event, Rodriguez acknowledged that when he initially campaigned, he tried to persuade voters not to see him as “just the charter school guy.”

“But now I realize that I have to own who I am. I’m the ‘charter guy.’ My call is to serve the charter movement,” he told the audience.

While charter supporters have largely remained silent about Rodriguez, his adversaries wasted no time in condemning him and even suggested that prior votes taken by the disgraced former board president should be invalidated.

“‘I’m sorry’ does not cut it. Ref Rodriguez has been disingenuously hinting at his innocence for over a year. In the meantime, critical, long-lasting policies were decided using his swing vote — including the 4-3 vote to begin the process of hiring investment banker Austin Beutner as superintendent," asserted United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl. "Therefore, UTLA demands that all 4-3 votes where Rodriguez cast the deciding vote be reconsidered or thrown out completely.” 

Caputo-Pearl said every vote cast by Rodriguez was to favor “the wealthy elite and the billionaire-backed California Charter Schools Association” and “not in the interest of students or parents of LAUSD."

“We reiterate our demand for transparency in the process to bring about the appointment," he said, "and that it not be similar to the hiring of Supt. Austin Beutner, who was selected with little public input or oversight.”

The criminal charges and Rodriguez's resignation from the school board come at perhaps the apex of his political career. Elected with the help of wealthy charter supporters such as billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, Rodriguez was chosen as school board president in 2016. The board had a decided majority that supported charter schools and was in position to influence LAUSD policy for several years.

The District Attorney’s Office was notified of the allegations about Rodriguez after a whistleblower filed a complaint with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission in March 2015.

In total, 25 donors, most of whom were family and friends, were allegedly repaid $24,250 in contributions to Rodriguez's campaign, prosecutors said. The donors' names were listed on a campaign finance report that was signed by Rodriguez and submitted to the commission.

Prosecutors commended the investigation launched by the commission, which found that over a 22-day period in December 2014, nearly half of the campaign contributions were fraudulent because Rodriguez and Melendrez reimbursed them.

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