School board member Tamar Galatzan (pictured) is quite possibly the busiest elected official in the city. One of two board members who has chosen to serve part-time (along with Nury Martinez), Galatzan also has a full-time job at the City Attorney’s office, and is the mother of two boys in elementary school. (She’s the only board member with a child currently in LAUSD.)
Galatzan, who represents much of the San Fernando valley, typically votes with the Monica Garcia voting bloc, and, as chair of the Budget Committee, she has also been something of a fiscal watchdog.
Recently interviewed in a San Fernando Valley field office located on the grounds of her Birmingham High School alma mater, Galatzan spoke about school board dynamics, her hopes for the most recent labor contract, and Superintendent John Deasy’s performance during a budget crisis.
LA School Report: You have another job with the city attorney’s office. What is the other job?
Tamar Galatzan: I’m a deputy city attorney. The unit I’m assigned to is the neighborhood prosecutor program. I work out of three LAPD divisions and I work on quality of life problems in the community. So things involving squatters and hoarders and transients and mobile billboards and party houses and nuisance properties.
LASR: Why do you do both jobs?
TG: Because it matters. I wouldn’t do either job unless I felt passionately about it. But it’s a lot of stuff to juggle. Plus two little boys.
LASR: So you chose to do the school board part-time because you already had the job at the city attorney’s office?
TG: Because I can’t live and pay a mortgage on $40,000 [note: the actual salary for a full-time board member is $45,000].
LASR: You recently told LA Magazine that the job is the “worst of both worlds.” (see: The Takeover Artist) Do you remember this quote? What did you mean by that?
TG: In some respects, being on the [LAUSD] school board is like being on the board of directors of a company like Chevron or Bank of America, where you don’t have a lot of control over the day-to-day operations and you’re really there to set policy, hire the CEO, and everything else that goes on at the company is the responsibility of someone else.
The reason why it’s frustrating is that our constituents hold us responsible for issues over which we have no control. I am not the person who makes the decision over changing the attendance boundary of a school. I don’t select principals. We don’t do much about curriculum. The school board doesn’t have any control over that. You can yell at me and vote me out of office or whatever you want to do, but I still don’t have any control over that.
LASR: What would your proposal be, if you were re-writing the charter [governing LAUSD]?
TG: I would probably go more towards some sort of [mayor-] appointed board.
LASR: You’ve worked with three superintendents. Compare superintendent Deasy to the last couple.
TG: I’m not going there. I personally just don’t believe in doing performance evaluations via the media. I think that one of the things that has faced, especially Cortines and Deasy, [is that] they’ve had to lurch from crisis to crisis, namely about the budget but about Miramonte and about everything else that keeps happening. But when you look at it, we’ve made devastating budget cuts, and test scores are up. Our graduation rate is up. Enrollment is up. These are all things you wouldn’t expect with the kinds of cuts we’ve had to make. And I think a lot of that has been because of the leadership of both Ray Cortines and John Deasy.
LASR: The school board is supposed to decide which charter schools get renewed. But school board members can also take political contributions. Is that a conflict of interest?
TG: School board members also ratify all the agreements with the employee unions, and they take contributions from them as well.
LASR: So are they both conflicts of interest?
TG: It’s an interesting question, because when you get down to it, who cares who’s on the school board? The only people who really care are the unions, because these people are going to be voting on their contracts. And maybe a charter might care because they’re going to be voting on their charter. But who else cares? Everyday parents, as you can see from the incredibly low voter turnout, don’t really care who’s on the school board.
If UTLA does an [independent expenditure campaign] on your behalf, does that mean you shouldn’t vote on anything that impacts teachers? I don’t know. I’m certainly not against exploring limiting who can make contributions. It’s a great topic for debate. I just don’t know who would be left to make a contribution.
LASR: I’ve been to a number of school board meetings. It’s obvious that there are these factions, these voting cliques, on the board. That’s how it seems to me. Is that uncomfortable?
TG: Depends on your tolerance for acrimonious debate. I’m a prosecutor, I’m used to people disagreeing with me. We have a vigorous debate, and we move on.
LASR: So it’s not personal?
TG: I didn’t say that. I think there are people… how should I put this? I don’t think the board right now is… I think it can be dysfunctional at times.
LASR: Dysfunctional in its public discourse, or in the decisions it makes?
TG: Keep going.
LASR: So both?
TG: Yeah. I think people, especially in public office, should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. And I think that dynamic, unfortunately, doesn’t carry over to the whole board. If you disagree with someone on a policy issue, then that’s some sort of personal affront to them. And I think that’s too bad.
LASR: You’ve been on the school board since 2007. Is there a decision that the board has made in that time that you’re most proud of?
TG: We negotiated a contract with UTLA that would give schools charter-like freedoms, to be able to innovate without leaving to become a charter school. And we’re gonna really see the first round of those this year. I think that could have a huge impact, and that’s something that I certainly pushed for. I don’t know how much you know about my district, but it’s different than the rest of LAUSD.
LASR: How so?
TG: I represent almost half of the San Fernando Valley, and a huge percentage of middle-class schools that don’t qualify for Title I anti-poverty dollars [money from the federal government]. These are your typical middle class schools. They’re some of the highest performing schools in the district. Budget cuts have had a disproportionate impact on them, and a lot of the schools are becoming affiliated charters in order to get access to additional funds.
LAUSD spends a lot of time, for good reason, focusing on schools that are struggling, and students who are underachieving. But those schools that are doing pretty well, no one pays attention to them, and they are desperately short of resources.
I mean, everyone holds up their test scores and says how wonderful they are, but when you realize they don’t have money for Xerox paper, that’s a problem. If we want to keep middle class families in the school district, we need to pay more attention to those schools.
LASR: Is there any decision that the school board has taken in the last 5 years that you wish you could reverse its vote?
TG: Oh my goodness, where do I start?
My first big vote on the school board was a very controversial one, and I was one of two votes, along with Marlene Canter, against extending health benefits to part-time cafeteria workers. I got a lot of flack and still do. But I felt that this issue should have been bargained at the bargaining table. Just like I said yesterday at a board meeting, about Mr. Zimmer’s resolution about Academic Growth Over Time, there are issues that are supposed to be bargained, and the board shouldn’t intervene and make a political decision to favor one side or the other in the middle of negotiations.
And I felt that we couldn’t afford those benefits. If they were bargained, then there would be a give and a take. And if that were something the health benefits committee valued, then they would have to help us figure out a way to pay for it.
LASR: And they’re incredible health plans, right?
TG: They’re very comprehensive health plans. And it’s cost us, in the middle of a budget crisis a lot of money.
LASR: All the money that LAUSD spends on health benefits, it’s something like $800 million?
TG: That’s probably low. But yeah, it’s close to $1 billion.
LASR: One last question. You’ve run for city council before. Any plans to run for something else?
TG: Uh…. I have no plans right now to run for everything. I have a very full life with LAUSD and the city attorney’s office and being a mom to two very active boys.
LASR: You know it’s a law that journalists have to ask that question at the end of an interview.
TG: Do you ever get someone saying, “Why yes”?
LASR: Not really.