Candidates stick to the script, play nice at District 3 forum
Craig Clough | April 14, 2015
As she arrived to the stage Monday night, Tamar Galatzan grabbed two bottles of water for the debate participants and handed one to her challenger, Scott Schmerelson, who smiled and thanked her.
The gesture set the stage for the evening, as both candidates for the LA Unified District 3 seat avoided any criticism of each other during a forum hosted by the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council.
Despite their opposing positions on many issues, the tone of the forum was so genial that it was easy to forget that the two are backed by powerful, deep-pocketed forces diametrically opposed to each other and poised to spend lots of money to take the other candidate out.
Galatzan, the incumbent endorsed by the California Charter School Association, finished atop a six-way race in the March 3 primary and now faces Schmerelson, the No. 2 finisher, in a May 19 runoff. Schmerelson was recently endorsed by the LA teachers union, UTLA.
Neither candidate directly criticized or even mentioned the other except for the few times they voiced agreement on an issue. Schmerelson did not have the UTLA endorsement during the primary race, but it was clear the new endorsement was not going to mean he will adopt the union’s more hard-edged approach to campaigning.
With below the belt tactics off the table, each worked hard to craft a positive self-image as a passionate advocate for LA Unified with a career and life experiences that added to their qualifications — Schmerelson, the veteran educator and administrator with the district; Galatzan, the hard-working parent already twice elected. Neither candidate challenged the other’s self portrait.
Schmerelson, now retired, repeatedly referred to his 35-year career with LA Unified as a teacher, counselor and principal and presented himself as the person with a deep and well-rounded resume in education with first-hand experience.
“My last experience, after retiring, I worked at Cleveland High School, which is a great school, and I taught a Spanish class there and I had 45 children in my class, and that was quite shocking to me,” Schmerelson said.
Galatzan, who is also a prosecutor with the city, described herself as a board member who fights as a representative of parents. She is also a part-time board member and was criticized for that fact by other primary candidates. But Galatzan said her part-time status is a positive.
“One of the things that’s been interesting is that there are some folks out there who think the only people who should serve on the school board are retired teachers and administrators. I don’t think that,” she said. “I think there is a role for parents on the school board. We are the customers. Our children are in our schools every day. I’m the only parent of school-aged kids on the board right now.”
The forum was moderated by Dan Schnur, executive director of the Unruh Institute of Politics of USC, and was attended by about 100 people at the Sherman Oaks Elementary School auditorium. He questioned the candidates about the role of charter schools, the hiring of a new superintendent, teacher evaluations and salaries, standardized tests and the use of bond money to purchase technology.
Despite Schnur’s hitting of all the top and most polarizing issues, the candidates played nice in their answers, and there were few, if any, surprises. Galatzan — who is reviled by many UTLA members for her support of the iPad program, charter schools and former Superintendent John Deasy — gave answers that would make most reform-minded, charter school advocates smile, while Schmerelson’s views would please any card-carrying UTLA member.
Galatzan said she is in favor of test scores being part of teacher evaluations, while Schmerelson is opposed. Galatzan said that seniority should not be the only factor when considering teacher layoffs, while Schmerelson said a seniority plan should be followed. Galatzan defended using bond money for technology upgrades, while Schmerelson said the ill-fated iPads-for-all program was a misuse of bond money. Galatzan said teacher tenure should be established in the three-to-five year range, while Schmerelson said the current rules of tenure after two years is correct.
One the issue of charter schools, the candidates gave more nuanced answers.
“There are some good charters schools, there are some bad charter schools. Overall, I think my job as a board member is to create high-quality public school options for all of our kids and all of our families,” Galatzan said.
Schmerelson said he wasn’t opposed to charters, but that the district’s oversight of them had been lax.
“Many, many charter schools are not having enough transparency to see actually what’s happening over there … You can see how we scrutinize every single penny that comes into the district. I never see the charter schools being scrutinized,” he said.