As the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, Rob Kuznia couldn’t bring himself to watch.
“I made a point not to watch the live broadcast on YouTube because I didn’t want to watch myself lose,” Kuznia said.
The journalist turned publicist was nominated for a local reporting prize for his work at the Torrance-based Daily Breeze. No longer in reporting, gaining a win was the last thing he expected.
But he soon got a call from his editor, Frank Suraci, telling him that they had won.
“We were speechless,” he said. “We were just repeating the same thing, which was, ‘I can’t believe this!’ We were pretty inarticulate for a few minutes and then began a day of celebration.”
Kuznia and Suraci, as well as fellow reporter Rebecca Kimitch, were also awarded a Scripps Howard Award for Community Journalism before the Pulitzer. Their investigative series, entitled “Centinela: Manipulation, Intimidation and Corruption,” covered wrongdoing within the school district.
“It wasn’t until we won the Scripps Howard Award that it sort of dawned on me that [the Pulitzer] was a real possibility,” Kuznia said. “It felt like a long shot to me, so I took it as flattery and left it at that.”
The articles covered Superintendent Jose Fernandez’s pay, which was $663,000, as well as other benefits from the district. It led to backlash from the public, a police investigation of Fernandez and his firing. Spending issues throughout the district were also uncovered during the investigation.
“Right away, it created a firestorm,” Kuznia said. “A lot of parents, families and students who are living paycheck-to-paycheck came to [board meetings] to communicate their extreme disappointment that this school district, which was supposed to be looking out for them, was really looking out for themselves.”
Centinela Valley is a small, low-income school district in Los Angeles County. The district’s test scores ranked last of the 80 school districts in the county, Kuznia said.
“This is a very indigent population, and here the leader of the district is making almost $1,000,000 in a single year,” he said. “All the while, the school board is cutting programs that benefitted those students and laying off teachers.”
Before working for the Daily Breeze, Kuznia studied journalism at the University of Minnesota, and later worked for newspapers in Minnesota and in Oregon before moving to California. He began working as a communications staff member for the Shoah Foundation in August 2014 and, for now, plans to stay.
“I’m sort of taking a wait-and-see approach,” Kuznia said. “I’m looking forward to a state of semi-normality again.”