THE LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT in many ways resembles a sinking ship. Yes, there have been hard-fought increases in test scores at the lower grade levels. And, yes, the district is building schools, lots of schools. But the $19 billion construction campaign has distracted the district from its core mission — addressing a tragic dropout rate, halting the violence on its campuses and protecting the district’s long-term financial health.

What L.A. Unified needs right now is someone who gets it, someone who recognizes the district’s shortcomings and sees how urgently the board needs to work together to get resources to schoolchildren, many of whom are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder and don’t need new disadvantages once they enter the classroom.

With the March 7 special election to fill District 2’s vacant seat on the seven-member board, voters in the neighborhoods that surround downtown Los Angeles have an unexpected opportunity to select someone who has experienced the dismal conditions firsthand, someone willing to make the unpopular decisions and, quite frankly, be a hard-ass on behalf of the district’s 700,000-plus students. That person is Ana Teresa Fernandez.

The daughter of L.A. Unified educators, Fernandez is alarmed by the lack of improvement at Belmont High School, where she graduated in 2000 and where her brother is now a student. Fernandez led student walkouts as part of an effort to complete the Belmont Learning Complex. She then spent three and a half years as an aide to school board member Mike Lansing before joining the California Charter Schools Association, where she reviewed grant funding for start-up charter schools.

Fernandez grasps the workings of the school district, both its successes and failures, and knows that there is a hard road ahead. Unlike other candidates, she is willing to make tough choices about a ticking pension time bomb that threatens to siphon vast sums of money from the classroom. Fernandez has not ruled out a mayoral takeover of the district. But she is also open to more radical changes, such as breaking up the district if major changes do not take hold.

In short, Fernandez will provide an independent voice. She is neither beholden to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has made control of the district his No. 1 priority, nor to the United Teachers Los Angeles, which is spending $250,000 on a candidate who opposes such a move.

Villaraigosa deserves praise for his relentless focus on public schools, but it’s not clear that mayoral control is the panacea. After all, the mayor has given no assurances that he will stay in office more than a few years, and who knows what the next mayor will bring.

Fernandez, at 23, has room to grow. She needs to engage more in the civic life of the city and show a willingness to build alliances to get things done. She should also entertain an even broader menu of fixes for the district governance, including higher school board salaries and a larger board. But we came away impressed by the depth of her knowledge of L.A. Unified business, and see her youth as a strength.

One of the more encouraging signs of this election is that voters have a choice at all. Last year no one stepped forward to challenge three incumbent board members, including José Huizar, who left the District 2 seat almost immediately after his election victory to run for Los Angeles City Council. Mónica García, a one-time Huizar aide who is backed by Villaraigosa, is full of energy and well-versed in school matters. She insists, rather implausibly, that she has no view on whether the mayor should appoint the school board. Christopher Arellano, running as the UTLA’s designee, knows how to build alliances but sometimes sounds like he does not realize the cutthroat, highly politicized climate he has entered. A fourth candidate — Enrique Gasca, who owns an El Sereno public-relations firm — lacks basic knowledge about the school district, such as the size of its budget.

Ultimately, Fernandez has the voice that speaks most directly to the needs of her district, which stretches from Koreatown to Lincoln Heights and even takes in part of South Los Angeles. She speaks eloquently about the disparities that exist across the district’s 27 cities. And she rightly points out that the new campuses opening in District 2 need staffing and resources in place the minute they open, not months later, after district brass have scrambled to contain the fallout.

Some civic leaders have argued that Fernandez would be a terrific board member — in a decade, when she is more seasoned politically. Having heard her straight talk about the grave issues facing L.A. Unified, we see no reason, and have no time, to wait.

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