GUEST COMMENTARY - His way or the highway. It’s a criticism that has followed middle-school principal Richard Ramos for more than 20 years, since his short stint as a politician on the city council of San Fernando.
Now Ramos is running for L.A. School Board in District 3, covering the western San Fernando Valley, against two-term incumbent and former teacher and school administrator Scott Schmerelson. Several teachers are sounding alarms about Ramos. They warn his pattern of autocratic behavior spells trouble for educators and even students who might raise questions about budgets or staffing decisions at their school sites.
This weekend Angelenos lost former Assemblymember and San Fernando City Councilmember Cindy Montañez, who died of cancer at age 49. An advocate for women, immigrant rights, and green space, Montañez first won election to the municipal panel at age 25 in March 1999. She immediately tangled with Ramos, elected alongside her.
At a closed-door meeting just two months into his tenure on council, Ramos voted in May 1999 to fire the city’s legal counsel. Montañez voted against the sudden shift and expressed concern a new firm was being ushered in behind her back. “I think it’s a matter of ego for some council members,” the city’s mayor, José Hernández, cautioned at the time. “They want a firm they can manipulate.”
In 2007, Ramos went to work for PUC schools as an assistant principal. The charter school chain was in the midst of expansion to 17 schools in L.A. over the coming decade. But in 2017, PUC struck a land mine when its co-founder, Ref Rodríguez, was arrested and arraigned on fraud and money-laundering charges in Los Angeles for spending and disguising money drawn from his charter-school treasury in his 2015 campaign for L.A. School Board.
Ramos lasted only one year at PUC, exiting in 2008. His online resume does not specify why he left after just thirteen months. But the top-down management structure practiced at PUC with few if any checks on the authority of administrators—the same authority that led to the undoing of PUC’s boss, Rodríguez—seemed to make an impression on Ramos.
When Ramos became principal at Northridge Middle School in 2017, teachers at the school report that he immediately began to screen school staff. Those he saw as cooperative, or who became his cronies, could stay. Those who asked questions or might be critics, he pushed out.
“He began cutting positions and getting people transferred,” write three of those teachers, some now retired, in a letter shared with leaders of the teachers union, UTLA. Rebecca Galdos, Vanessa Culp, and Judi Greenberg all logged 30 years of teaching at Northridge Middle School before leaving due to the worsened climate they attribute to Ramos, now in his seventh year there.
“He made decisions unilaterally and without working collaboratively,” they write. “In June 2022, twenty teachers left the school including the entire magnet staff (except two).”
In interviews, other staff who have left the middle school echo the criticism expressed by the trio in their letter. But since those additional sources remain active educators in LAUSD, they are reluctant to go on record out of risk of retaliation. Indeed, the three who wrote the letter cite the danger of “retribution” against those who “are still working in the district” whom Ramos might identify as adversaries.
Triggering such trepidation is not a good credential for a candidate, especially one trying to unseat a trusted incumbent. At the LAUSD Board, shared governance is at a premium. In 2014, John Deasy was pushed out as superintendent over malfunctioning software and computer hardware that he imposed on schools, despite concerns of Board Members, thus owning the debacle himself. In 2022, Dr. Rocío Rivas won a School Board seat in part by calling out the failure of 16-year Board Member Monica Garcia to visit the school sites in her district or develop productive relationships with them. Words and actions that show collaboration by decision-makers with educators are a winning theme.
So far Ramos is getting an F from teachers for his non-collegial approach to school governance. That will hurt him in a competitive election where teachers and retired teachers make up a sizable fraction of the electorate. It is no way to earn promotion from administrator to the School Board.
(Cheryl Ortega is a classroom teacher who has taught in public schools in L.A.’s Eastside communities for more than 50 years. In 2022, she earned recognition by the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD) as Educator of the Year in part for her advocacy for bilingual education and language access in school settings.)