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LAUSD District 4 school board candidates meet in first forum, discuss charters, finances

Sarah Favot | January 10, 2017

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speakupdebateThe four candidates who are seeking a seat representing District 4 for the next five and a half years on the LA Unified school board appeared together for the first time Monday night and discussed the district’s troubled finances, teacher tenure, school choice and charter schools.

The candidate forum was sponsored by Speak UP, a parent organization formed last year, and held at the Rose in Venice. All four candidates participated: incumbent board member and board president Steve Zimmer, Nick Melvoin, Allison Holdorff Polhill and Gregory Martayan.

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.

Katie Braude, co-founder of Speak UP, moderated the discussion. Candidates gave introductory remarks and Braude then asked each candidate questions, which were based on concerns raised by the group’s members. Some questions from the audience were also asked. About 150 people packed into the room to listen to the 90-minute discussion.

Braude stressed the importance of a “kids first” agenda as advocated by Speak UP and challenged the candidates to carry that out.

• Read more: Zimmer, Melvoin condemn District 4 phone survey that brings up LAUSD child molestations

The first question was about the district’s projected cumulative deficit of $1.46 billion through the 2018-19 school year.

Melvoin, an attorney and teacher, said if elected he wants to put the district’s finances online to be more transparent. He said once the board puts its finances in order, it will have more credibility to go to the voters for a potential tax increase.

Zimmer praised the passage of Prop. 55, which he advocated for, that extends taxes on high-income earners to help fund public schools.

“And so the catastrophic numbers that were mentioned were with the assumption that Prop. 55 would not pass, with the passage of Prop. 55, we see the possibility for some further stabilization,” he said.

Zimmer said a primary priority of the board and Superintendent Michelle King is to decentralize and move resources and decision-making to schools.

Zimmer said the district is going to have a “UAW moment,” referring to the 2008 auto industry crisis and the subsequent federal government bailout.

“We are going to have to, with our labor partners together, make sure we address this pension and health liability crisis. The only way you do that is through trust and collaboration, and so we’ve set that table. We need to have the courage to move these issues forward,” he said.

Braude specifically asked Zimmer a follow-up question pointing to the board’s decision to extend healthcare benefits for employees, as the district faces a $13.6 billion unfunded liability for retiree healthcare. 

“I think we all can agree that if you protect the dreams of our kids by day, we should be able to stand by your family by night,” Zimmer said.

Braude questioned how that was putting kids first, “I’m hearing an answer that says we have to protect the adults.” Zimmer was not given a chance to immediately respond.

Steve Zimmer, Nick Melvoin, Katie Braude, Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill.

Steve Zimmer, Nick Melvoin, Katie Braude, Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill.

On the issue of school choice, Zimmer pointed out that LA Unified has authorized more charter schools than any other school board in the nation.

“The idea that this board is somehow opposed to choice, the idea that somehow whatever board member might be under fire in this room or any other, has not embraced that option with all of the difficulties and dilemmas that it brings, is a compelling narrative, it’s just a fictional one,” he said.

Braude then said she had to make a comment to Zimmer’s response.

“It is perplexing to us to hear that there’s a pro-choice board when we see a lot of high-quality options being denied,” she said, receiving applause.

Martayan said he would not use divisive language when it comes to charter schools.

“The reality is this is something that comes from the top down, if the board member puts an end to it and if the board member treats everyone equally and doesn’t use divisive language … then the divisive language goes away,” he said.

Polhill pointed to her experience as a board member at Palisades Charter High School.

“I have experience getting people that did not play nicely together to work things out,” she said. She noted that Pali is a conversion charter whose teachers are part of the teachers union, UTLA.

Polhill’s three priorities are to unify the often divided school board, support all education models and balance the budget.

“What the board needs to do is to place all the lowest-performing schools No. 1. on that agenda,” she said.

On teacher tenure, Melvoin, who was laid off by the district in 2009 due to budget cuts and the district’s Last In, First Out lay-off policy, said the tenure system is broken. He proposed some reforms to the tenure system including adding student achievement, colleague surveys, student and parent surveys and whether teachers are dedicated to the school by coaching teams or advising clubs.

“It’s also de-professionalizing, when the only way you can get more money as a teacher in this district is to live another year, we’re not going to get the best and the brightest,” Melvoin said.

In response to a question about Prop. 39, co-locating charter schools with traditional schools, Melvoin said he’d like to do an audit of all available space in the district.

“Ad hoc decision-making, leaving some stakeholders out in the dark, very last-minute meetings, that’s how we turn people away from the district, that’s how we sour the community,” Melvoin said.

Zimmer said the Prop. 39 system is broken.

“There have been all kinds of problems with this on all sides, and I offer myself as someone who will make this a priority in terms of getting everyone to the table to address the facilities issue,” Zimmer said.

Martayan said his three priorities are safe schools, accountability and transparency. A specialist reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, Martayan said if child abuse is happening in the school district, it’s the board member’s responsibility to be in schools to ensure the child is safe and administrators have the tools they need to protect children.

Zimmer said he’s running “to finish this job.” Zimmer has served for two four-year terms and is seeking his final term due to term limits.

The primary election is March 7. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, a general election will be held May 16.

A video of the event can be viewed on Speak UP’s Facebook page.

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