District 4 board campaign heats up: A few zingers as Zimmer, Melvoin, Martayan and Polhill debate deficits (and DeVos)
Laura Greanias | February 3, 2017
The four contenders for the District 4 seat on LA Unified’s school board met on Thursday night for the second time, in a forum at Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood.
There were a few zingers, some rather polite versions of sharp elbows and hoots of support from the 150 or so in the audience for each of the candidates. Plus a unanimous denunciation of President Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who cleared another hurdle Friday morning.
All four candidates participated: incumbent board member and board President Steve Zimmer, Nick Melvoin, Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill.
District 4 includes the Westside of Los Angeles, West Hollywood and East Hollywood, and the San Fernando Valley communities of Woodland Hills, Encino, Tarzana and Topanga.
The forum was presented by the Pacific Palisades Community Council, the Palisades Charter Schools Foundation, the PTSA and PRIDE at Paul Revere and the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils. It was moderated by Fern Somoza, recently retired principal of Revere.
A selection of soundbites:
On the projected budget deficit
In December, LA Unified’s chief financial officer, who is now leaving the district, warned of coming reductions when she reported to the board that the district notified the county and the state that it may not be able to meet its financial obligations in subsequent years because it faces a cumulative deficit of $1.46 billion through the 2018-19 school year.
Somoza asked how each candidate would address a budget deficit and cited a figure of $250 million for the coming year, to which Martayan responded: “There’s your deficit,” saying the district has spent $400 million to settle sexual abuse cases. He also cited a lawsuit filed in December on behalf of eight students in the San Fernando Valley.
Zimmer didn’t address whether there is a deficit but called the budget “a fluid situation.” He said the board has balanced the budget every year he has been on it, including when the district faced a $700 million deficit.
Allison Holdorff Polhill then pointed to the district’s $13.6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. “Someone who sat on the board for eight years cannot say they’ve balanced the budget,” Polhill said. “That’s what a board does.”
Melvoin called for the district to heed the recommendations of an Independent Financial Review Panel and called for more transparency and developing of new sources of revenue, “which we won’t do if there’s no credibility.”
On declining enrollment and how the district will co-exist with the expansion of charters and alternative school models
LA Unified has lost nearly 100,000 students over the past six years and with each of those students goes state funding, which is based on attendance. Somoza cited district enrollment declines from 618,000 to 514,000 students while charter enrollment has grown from 61,000 to 112,000. The review panel’s report pointed out that the district grew its staff — to 64,348 full-time equivalent positions — increasing its costs for both salary and benefits. And last spring the superintendent’s report showed that certified administrative staff increased 22 percent in the preceding five years.
“When you have a declining enrollment, … you do not increase administrative staff 22 percent and then attempt to scapegoat charters,” Polhill said.
Melvoin also said the board “has chosen to scapegoat” charters, and he said the district needs to improve its own schools. He called for it to be more collaborative and to “fix the broken co-location” process in which charters are allotted unused space at district schools through Proposition 39.
On co-locations, Melvoin would like to see the money a charter pays to the district go instead to the school with which it is sharing a campus. He said there is a great need for more collaboration and cited the frustration of parents at Broadway Elementary’s foreign language immersion program when it wasn’t allowed to expand. “Now we have a divided community and a program that is shrinking.”
Zimmer echoed what he had said at the candidates’ first forum in January: “Our oversight is recognized as one of the best in the nation. We have authorized more charters than any district in the nation.” He added, “The board has encouraged the growth of affiliated charters” and “the innovation of” magnets and raised the cap on pilot schools.
“We’re lucky as parents that this board is letting us have choice,” Martayan added dryly.
On the difficult and expensive process to dismiss low-performing teachers
“It has to be about empowering teachers” and connecting teachers with opportunities to grow, Melvoin said. Evaluation of teachers should include a variety of factors, including state achievement scores, peer evaluations and teacher and parent feedback.
Polhill said it’s all about building relationships and negotiating. “It can be done, we did it and it’s tough.”
Zimmer defended the framework for teacher evaluations that the district negotiated with United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union. He called it a good starting place and a system that has buy-in, and he said the district regularly fires teachers. “Every month we do teacher dismissals for poor performance.”
Martayan kept on his theme of school and community safety. “LAUSD isn’t a haven for great teachers because schools outside of Pali are not safe to work in,” Martayan said in one of several jabs at Polhill, who has led the board at Palisades Charter High School.
Then Martayan shot at Zimmer on the issue of safe schools, eliciting a back-and-forth that spilled over into time allotted for other questions: “He’s done a fantastic job of turning students and families against the school police.”
When Zimmer’s turn came to respond to Somoza’s next question, he responded to Martayan, “If I’ve dismantled the school police, why did they endorse me?”
Martayan answered, “The board controls the purse strings of the school police. It had no choice but to endorse you.”
On the arts, English language learners and special education
Melvoin also cited district payouts in abuse cases: “The $88 million settlement, that’s 1,400 arts teachers.” He suggested paying out-of-work actors and other artists a stipend to teach in local schools. “Less waste, less talk about arts and more doing.”
“When you don’t have a balanced budget, one of the first things to go is arts,” Polhill said. “We need to be fiscally responsible so we can fund the arts.” She added, “If we continue to repel philanthropy, we will not be able to partner with industry … if the district is not able to show it is fiscally responsible.”
“Arts education saved my life. When Dr. Deasy tried to eliminate arts education in the district, I saved arts education in the district,” Zimmer said. “Then the following year I implemented the arts equity index. … The idea that arts organizations aren’t partnering with the district is simply fictional.”
“Cut the red tape,” said Martayan, noting the support he has received from members of LA’s entertainment industry. He said he will enlist the help of Hollywood and set up “a team of ambassadors who can teach their crafts to the students.” He added, “If you provide parents with the support they desire, the families with thrive, the children will thrive.”
On Betsy DeVos
When Somoza asked the candidates for their reaction to the new administration, each said they are for protecting students and their families and against Besty DeVos as education secretary.
“Because we agree (on DeVos), let’s agree this is not a campaign issue that is relevant to this race,” Melvoin said to applause.
In closing, candidates were asked to describe a success or achievement that demonstrates their commitment to the achievement of students.
Martayan: “Protecting children and creating safe neighborhoods and schools.” Then he called on Melvoin and Polhill “to renounce the IE set for them by Dick Riordan,” citing the former mayor’s pledge spend $1 million to back Melvoin.
In a district where “one in four students is not graduating,” Polhill said: “Every day they come home is a day less for them not to be educated.” She returned to her track record at Pali: “I’m the only one who has balanced a school budget,” and “we were dealing with less money per student than the rest of the district.” She added that she had “successfully negotiated with UTLA … reined in a fractious board …that parent voice is missing from the board.” She said she would be the only board member with children who recently attended LA Unified schools.
Melvoin decried the district’s “bloated bureaucracy and the deficit” and said, “We’re trying to blame parents and charters for what’s been happening, and that has to change.” He closed: “Most important, it’s about putting a kids-first approach.”
Zimmer cited as his success the handling of the search for a new superintendent. “Everyone thought this district would fall apart. I am very proud of the process we went through” when the board selected Michelle King, “a daughter of this district.”
Here are more opportunities to hear the candidates in all three board races before the March 7 primary:
Board District 2:
United Way forum, Feb. 10 at Cal State LA, 6-7:30 p.m.
Board District 4:
Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa and LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce forum, Feb. 6 at Loyola Marymount’s Roski Auditorium, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
United Way forum, Feb. 15 at LA City College, 6-7:30 p.m.
Board District 6:
United Way forum, March 1 at LA Mission College, 6-7:30 p.m.