July 20, 2019

Steve Zimmer holds middle ground

After surviving opposition funded by the mayors of America’s two biggest cities, newly re-elected Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer says his win has preserved a “system of checks and balances” in running L.A.’s huge school district.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg teamed up to pour millions of dollars into the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee that supported the campaigns of Zimmer’s challenger, lawyer Kate Anderson, as well as school board president Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally. Garcia won, but Anderson lost in a race that turned out to be the most closely watched of the election. Another Villaraigosa-backed candidate, Antonio Sanchez, is headed for a runoff in a contest for an open seat.

Bloomberg gave $1 million to Villaraigosa’s Coalition For School Reform, which put in almost $4 million to take control of the school board. The two mayors are aligned with national education advocates who generally oppose teacher tenure and seniority rules and instead favor evaluating teachers on the basis of statistically controversial student test scores. They also back charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run schools whose teachers are often not union members. 

Villaraigosa, Bloomberg and their allies seem to believe in the old cliché: my way or the highway.

But Zimmer, whose Fourth District ranges from East Hollywood to Venice and from Westwood into the San Fernando Valley, received 52 percent of the vote in an extraordinarily low-turnout election. “Venice was the tipping point for me,” Zimmer said. “I knew the election would be determined in Venice, and it was literally these parents e-mailing for us. The voters who voted were highly informed and highly educated on the issues. This election was won by moms in virtual precincts, moms blogging, really engaged in the substance of the issues.

“What the opposition wanted was complete control,” Zimmer said. “When you don’t have a system of checks and balances, you go to extremes. As a policymaker, I think moderation, compromise and cooperation are the key ingredients in building successful.”

Zimmer, who was a classroom teacher and counselor at Marshall High School, has always tried to walk a line between the Villaraigosa coalition and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the teachers union that opposes the mayor.  It’s a difficult task in the highly polarized world of education politics and policy.

“He was no one’s ‘yes man,’ ” wrote former State Sen. Gloria Romero in an Orange County Register column. “That seemed to be the problem.” Romero advocates changes in school operations, but doesn’t follow the hard line espoused by some of the national reform leaders. 

Although UTLA has criticized Zimmer in the past, the union obviously considered him better than the Villaraigosa group and put almost $1 million into his and other school board races.

Now safely possessed of another four-year term, Zimmer is looking to the future.

One big question is whether he will support school superintendent John E. Deasy, who is much admired by the Villaraigosa group. Zimmer’s foes implied during the campaign that he would vote to fire Deasy.

I asked him if he would continue to back the superintendent. “Absolutely,” Zimmer said. “John Deasy is the right person. He is the best person. I have been the decisive vote to maintain the Deasy superintendency, but I reserve the right to disagree with him on policy issues. We should debate policy. We are policymakers. You get the best policy by having a healthy debate.”

Another big question is whether Zimmer will be a candidate for president of the school board — a high-visibility post, although the president has the same one vote as the six other board members.

“I think people will speculate,” he said. “And if asked by a strong majority of my colleagues, I would consider that. But I am not obsessed with title or position. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about that.”

We discussed a subject that has long interested Zimmer — the effort to persuade parents to keep their children in public schools, particularly the middle class in middle schools. I first met Zimmer when I began writing about this for the Jewish Journal a couple of years ago, centering my attention on Jewish families on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Zimmer, who is Jewish, has been a leader in the effort.

“On the Westside, I am very proud of the fact that we have had the guts to deal with the complicated issue of families coming back to the public schools,” he said. How do our parents, especially in the Jewish community, invest in and support and transform our neighborhood schools without excluding anybody? That is the absolute question. Can we make the investment? Can we re-engage in our public schools?”

“There are strong examples in West Hollywood. We’re beginning to have examples on the Westside in elementary schools.”

Ethnic and class differences can make the process difficult. Zimmer talked about the difficulty of getting parents of different incomes and ethnicities to work together. “How do I as a leader guide a person through a relationship with a parent who might not even have a high school education … who is regarded as ‘the other’? That is the struggle of the moment on the Westside.”

It’s actually the struggle of the moment all over Los Angeles, and not just in the schools. I’m glad Zimmer survived the Villaraigosa-Bloomberg assault and will be around to continue to add his moderate voice to the battle. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).