October 20, 2018

Board contenders differ sharply on LAUSD issues

Even as candidates at a Jan. 9 forum for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board promised civility and a break from the bitter politics of the day, they were free in their criticism of the incumbent.

“Reasonable people can disagree about complex areas of policy,” said Nicholas Melvoin, a prominent challenger for the District 4 seat. “It doesn’t have to be mean.”

But a short while later, when the conversation turned to the district’s multibillion-dollar unfunded pension liabilities, Melvoin was on the attack.

“This board has consistently, going back years, kicked this can down the road,” he said as he sat onstage next to the incumbent board president, Steve Zimmer.

Melvoin has raised more than $160,000 in just under a year as a candidate, making him Zimmer’s top challenger in terms of fundraising for the March 7 school board primary elecion in a district that stretches from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley. 

Both men are Jewish, but the two share a great deal more than that.

“Nick Melvoin and Steve Zimmer have so much in common they could be brothers,” an April article on the website EdSource by Michael Janofsky stated. “Both are progressive Democrats, Jewish, adjunct college professors and former public school educators from Teach For America.”

But issues of teacher tenure, charter schools and how to deal with $1.46 billion deficit produced sharp disagreement at the event at The Rose restaurant just blocks from the beach in Venice.

Zimmer and Melvoin sat center stage, flanked by fellow candidates Gregory Martayan, a public relations specialist, and Allison Holdorff Polhill, an attorney and high school teacher, under wicker lamps in the heated outdoor patio of the upscale eatery, as some 150 guests sipped red wine and sampled from cheese platters. The event was hosted by Speak Up, a grass-roots parents organization, on the first night back from winter break for LAUSD students.

It was the first time all four candidates found themselves onstage together.

Where Zimmer saw a district that had struggled but triumphed through hard times, Melvoin painted a picture of a board that has lost touch with the needs of parents and students.

“Through the many difficult times that this school district has endured over these past eight years, we have been able to stabilize LAUSD through the Great Recession,” Zimmer said.

He touted the November passage of Proposition 55, an income tax extension to fund health care and education in California, as a positive development for the district.

Meanwhile, Melvoin mentioned that more than 100,000 LAUSD students are in charter schools, with more on waiting lists, despite the board’s reticence to adopt charter schools wholesale, calling the situation “an indictment of our failed status quo.” He depicted the district’s deficit as a sign that its affairs are in disarray.

“The board has failed to heed the warnings of financial experts for years that said we’re heading for a cliff,” he said.

Melvoin first made his name in the education world working on a lawsuit against LAUSD, Reed v. California. After being laid off in 2010 from a two-year stint as an LAUSD teacher, he joined the class-action suit that challenged seniority-based layoffs, which resulted in a settlement. Since then, he’s spent time as a legal clerk for the American Civil Liberties Union and an education consultant. 

Zimmer spent 17 years as an LAUSD teacher before his 2009 election to the board.

Much of the conversation among the candidates revolved around a school board that is seen as oppositional to charter schools. Melvoin skewered the board for rejecting philanthropists such as Eli Broad in their attempts to fund a ramping up of the district’s charter school enrollment. 

“Philanthropists and community members want to spend billion of dollars … and they’re told no,” Melvoin said. “So when schools and faculty are being encouraged to vote against incoming funds when we have this fiscal situation, that’s a shame.”

Zimmer rejected the charge that the board is anti-charter. In a school district with more than 1 in 6 students in charter schools, “the idea that this board is somehow opposed to [school] choice … it’s just a fictional narrative,” he said.

The other candidates were no more gentle in their criticism of the incumbent board than Melvoin.

“Teacher tenure happens too quickly and too soon,” Martayan said.

During the forum, Martayan — who said he recently returned from a trip to Israel — touted his plan to introduce Hebrew education and kosher food to LAUSD schools. Though he’s not Jewish, Martayan claims to be supported by much of the Orthodox Jewish community.

Polhill, meanwhile, slammed the board’s inaction on pension liabilities as “fiscally irresponsible and dangerous.”

Despite Melvoin’s promise of an amicable debate, he presented himself as a change candidate who represents a sharp contrast from the incumbency. But Zimmer rejected the tactic of “blaming LAUSD for everything.”

“Whether that is a good narrative or not is less important than whether it works for kids,” he said.