‘See me for who I really am’: Inside Nick Melvoin’s plan to win over L.A. parents and teachers
Mike Szymanski | July 18, 2017
When Nick Melvoin unseated LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer, teachers threatened to strike. Others worried about having to find a new job. A national reporter was surprised to learn in an interview that opponents were all wrong when they portrayed Melvoin as a Trump supporter.
And there was palpable trepidation by a server who hesitatingly approached Melvoin at a recent lunch meeting on the west side with LA School Report. “I wasn’t sure if it was OK to talk to you, but I admire what you are saying you want to do with the district,” he said, bringing up an issue at his daughter’s school.
“I hope people realize that I’m not as scary as I have been portrayed,” Melvoin said after chatting with the father. “The calls for a strike are premature. I hope the rhetoric of the campaign will finally calm down and they see me for who I really am.”
With an impish grin, a youthful look that sometimes doesn’t include wearing socks, and millions of dollars in charter school campaign donations, the 31-year-old Harvard grad knows he will have to fight being known as “Mr. Charter School.”
But he pointed out that Ref Rodriguez, the new school board president who co-founded a charter school network and won his seat in a bitter campaign two years ago, was able to win over detractors.
“I know that people were suspicious and fearful of Ref at first, and he worked things out well and I hope to do the same thing,” Melvoin said. Although he won handily in his district, he said he wants families to realize he has the entire school district in mind.
Melvoin also knows he has to work to build bridges with the three other board members who are not part of the new 4-3 pro-reform majority and who have called charter schools a “threat to traditional district schools.” In the month remaining before school starts, Melvoin said he is meeting with George McKenna, Scott Schmerelson, and Richard Vladovic. He is also reaching out to all the union leaders.
“There are many areas where we are on the same page, such as, I had a good conversation with Dr. Vladovic about his ideas to create incentives for teachers, I think we very much agree on that,” Melvoin said. “I hope that I don’t come across as this 31-year-old who knows everything. I want to show that I’m an eager, quick learner and a willing partner.”
He noted that he dealt with similar issues as a new young teacher at Markham Middle School. “I think there was a fear about being this new young person and I quickly showed there was no hubris here,” he said. “I asked other teachers how can I do better, what can I do about classroom management and I think that led to great collaboration.” In his second year, his colleagues elected him chair of the English department.
Melvoin is not the youngest board member — that would be Kelly Gonez, who turned 29 the day she was sworn in. “I do hope that with that youth there is some energy that I bring and that a catalyst for some urgency to these problems,” he said.
Melvoin had heard about the “strike talk” by some concerned teachers after his election, but he said, “I’m excited to show folks at the union that I’m not anti-union.”
In fact, he said the local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, may be surprised to find that he supports state legislation banning for-profit charter schools and he agrees that low-performing charter schools should be shut down.
“Strike talk is premature and pretty irresponsible at this point,” Melvoin said. “I think this is another area where I can extend an olive branch. I was a member of UTLA, I think teachers are a critical piece of this puzzle, and I want LA Unified to be a place where teachers want to teach and where they are respected and compensated.”
He added, “Systemically and societally we do pay teachers too poorly, yes, but I also think we have fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers.” For example, he has suggested establishing a single-payer health care system for the district with one insurance provider.
One of the biggest myths about Melvoin, he said, is that he will champion a rapid expansion of charter schools now that the board has a 4-3 majority. “Never did I say, nor do I believe, that the answer is just ramping up of charters,” he said. “What I have always talked about is a replication and amplification in what works, and increases of that, along with financial reform, school-based autonomies, and trying to improve the way we recruit and train teachers.”
What about the education reformers who supported his campaign? “I’m beholden only to our constituents,” he said. “Most donations were $100 and $150 and from an engaging new group of voters: future parents, future teachers, the tech community.”
As far as charter funders and philanthropists, Melvoin said, “My hope is that they start to believe that with our new leadership that LAUSD is a place worth investing in and that we’re a willing partner to bring the urgency to student achievement.”
After his election, Melvoin’s first visit was to Walgrove Elementary in Mar Vista, a neighborhood district school where many teachers supported Zimmer. In 2012 a charter school wanted to build on two acres of unused land on the campus, but the board voted against the project after intense parent protests.
“My goal is to work with everyone and tackle all the challenges,” Melvoin said. He noted that some of the parents were concerned that one classroom at Walgrove that houses a theater and art class may be assigned to a charter school. He didn’t think Walgrove should lose that classroom. “It was important to visit a traditional school first. The teachers and staff at Walgrove seemed very excited. Parents are very excited that they have someone sensitive to their needs.”
Melvoin said he is dealing with perceptions that his west side District 4 is an “elite enclave” of charter schools. “That is just false. We are a 71 percent Latino population, and in charters it is 74 percent. There are some schools in District 4 where co-locations have led to hostility, but that doesn’t mean that parents on the west side shouldn’t be allowed to choose a good school too.”
Transparency and openness are key goals for Melvoin, and he has met with City Controller Ron Galperin to find out how data, budgets, and information can be more accessible, like Galperin has done for Los Angeles.
“We need to be honest and open with our data,” Melvoin said. “I want a robust, user-friendly website that has financial data, enrollment data, facilities data, student achievement data, so that we can really lead the nation when it comes to being a model and how transparent we are.”
That also includes an open unified enrollment system that would include independent charter schools, which is not what Superintendent Michelle King is planning at the moment.
“I do think 100 percent that charters should be in the open enrollment,” Melvoin said. “There needs to be more trust between charter schools and the district.”
Co-locations under Proposition 39, in which charter schools share space on traditional school campuses, are also a big issue for Melvoin. “Even as a charter-friendly board, we have to make sure we are protecting some spaces that are really key to schools while still obviously following the law and making sure we are finding spaces for our charter partners.”
Criticized for called LA Unified a “failing district,” Melvoin said it is the system that failed with low-performing test scores and “a diploma that is now worth a little less if grades are inflated. We have done a disservice to kids. When you have these huge deficits, and when you have a $13.6 billion unfunded pension liability, it’s definitely not a system that is succeeding.”
He said he would like to see the Beaudry headquarters be repurposed, as perhaps even low-income housing for employees and teachers. “It is a really foreboding and isolating building, and I would like to see a school board headquarters that is attached to a school,” Melvoin said.
Melvoin has almost completed hiring his staff, which includes Sarah Angel, who was managing director of the California Charter Schools Association, and Allison Holdorff Polhill, who was his former competitor in the District 4 race and who endorsed him after the primary. Adding Polhill, who was also on the board of a charter high school, and Angel, to his staff may have rankled some observers who still are skeptical of Melvoin.
“Allison became a friend on the campaign trail and she brings a lot to the election,” Melvoin said. “She was helpful in the runoff.”
Melvoin said he hoped the board meetings won’t be as contentious as in the past. “It’s going to take some bridge building.”
He said he wants to work with Zimmer at some point, and Melvoin noted that he received a “gracious email” from Zimmer after the election; Zimmer had refused to call him on election night to concede.
“I may be naive in this, but I hope to develop a relationship (with Zimmer) because I think there’s a lot I can learn from him.” Melvoin said “He has a lot of strengths, and his heart is 100 percent in this. I’m replacing an incumbent who’s a good guy and has good relationships.”
One way he sees bringing the board together is a unified front against the Trump administration. “This whole Trump-DeVos administration is anathema to public education. It is a threat to our students, our immigrants, our vulnerable students. There is a cruel budget on the horizon that we can unify against. That will bring everyone together on the board.”
At his first board meeting on the day he was sworn in, Melvoin was building bridges.
He didn’t take his seat on the horseshoe right away. He first introduced himself and shook hands with every staff member who sits on the outside of the horseshoe. He shook hands with every school board member. Then, for the first time, he took his new seat.