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Meet an LAUSD school board candidate — District 4’s Nick Melvoin: ‘The district is not providing the education that students deserve’

LA School Report | February 15, 2017

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LA School Report covers the 2017 LAUSD school board race: See all 13 candidate profiles

Name: Nick Melvoin

Board district: 4

Age: 31

Lives in: West Los Angeles

Job: Attorney, educator, nonprofit education consultant, LAUSD substitute teacher, volunteer

Married: No

Children in LAUSD: No children

LAUSD schooling: Kenter Canyon Elementary

Other education: Curtis, Harvard-Westlake, bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, master’s in urban education from Loyola Marymount University, law degree from New York University School of Law

Platform: Put kids first by cutting the bloated bureaucracy and keeping the best teachers in the classroom.

Campaign funding: Melvoin has raised $296,948 and spent $88,007 as of Jan. 21. Independent expenditure committees have spent $206,110 to support him. The funders are the Parent Teacher Alliance, which is sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, and former LA mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa. A UTLA-funded independent committee backing Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla has spent $65,276 opposing Melvoin.

Endorsements: Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Speak UP, LA County Young Democrats, former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former LA Mayor Richard Riordan, Pacific Palisades Democratic Club, California Charters Schools Association.

Campaign site:

Nick Melvoin was the first candidate to jump into the LA Unified school board race, declaring a full year ago that he would challenge board President Steve Zimmer for the District 4 seat. 

Melvoin, of West Los Angeles, graduated from Harvard-Westlake in 2004 and then Harvard and earned a master’s from Loyola Marymount University and a law degree from New York University School of Law. At age 31, he is the youngest person vying for the seat, competing against Zimmer, Allison Holdorff Polhill and Greg Martayan. 

Melvoin started his career working as a teacher for two years in LA Unified’s Edwin Markham Middle School through the Teach For America program. He has also worked as a legal clerk for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, as director of policy, communications and associate counsel for Great Public Schools Los Angeles, as a consultant to Educators 4 Excellence and is currently a consultant to Teach Plus.

Melvoin worked on the ACLU’s Reed v. California lawsuit, which challenged LA Unified’s seniority-based teacher layoff policies, by helping recruit former students and co-workers from Markham to join the lawsuit. He also testified in the Vergara v. California lawsuit that challenged teacher tenure and school employment laws but which ended in August when the California Supreme Court declined to review it. 

“When I announced my candidacy nearly a year ago, I knew it would be an uphill battle to win the seat from the two-term incumbent and board president,” Melvoin said. “I had faith that my message would resonate then and I continue to believe that the voters are ready for a change. Parents are already voting throughout the district for change and that is why we have seen charter schools add 60,000 new students over the past five years alone. The district is not providing the education that students deserve, and support for improving LAUSD continues to grow.”

Question: You are backed by charter supporters. How would you support all district schools?

Answer: My support for charter schools doesn’t come at the expense of all district schools. I’m running for school board because I believe all LAUSD schools need a board that pursues kids-first policies. That means increasing transparency, strengthening oversight, enhancing accountability, and working with district administrators, staff, teachers, students, and parents to plan long-term budgets that provide our students with the support they need to succeed.

My goal is to improve all of LA’s public schools. I’ve met so many parents who have students enrolled in different types of public schools — traditional district, charter, magnet, pilot — and they’re less concerned with what we call the school than they are about whether it’s meeting the needs of their child. We have a wonderful and diverse new ecosystem of public schools in LA. The old LAUSD vs. charter dichotomy needs to give way to policies — from co-location to funding to sharing best practices — that address this new, and positive, reality.

Q: Why do you think former LA Mayor Richard Riordan is putting so much money into this race?

A: People across Los Angeles are donating to my campaign because they see it as an investment in new leadership for a school district that is in need of reform. Like Mayor Riordan, they see a district where only a quarter of students are proficient in math, where we’re losing enrollment, and thus funding, and yet wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, and where there is a $13.5 billion unfunded pension liability. Students are not receiving the excellent education that they deserve, our teachers can’t count on the retirement they were promised, and more than 130,000 students are now enrolled in charter schools with another 40,000 on wait lists.

Q: What would you do to increase achievement in all district schools?

A: One of the greatest flaws of the current leadership is their tendency to support blanket policies that do not take into account the unique needs of each school. I would give more autonomy to principals to tailor schools to the needs of students. One of the most frequent complaints that I hear is that not enough money is going to schools. I agree, and that is why I want to cut the bloated bureaucracy to ensure that more money is going into classrooms, teacher salaries to retain the best and brightest, and facility maintenance. It is mind-boggling that while enrollment — and thus funding — has decreased, the number of bureaucratic staff has risen 22 percent.

My platform of “L.I.G.H.T. LAUSD” is the outline for how we plan to increase achievement for students at all schools.

Local control and autonomy: In a district of over 660,000 students and 710 square miles, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. The needs of a school in Venice are different than a school in Watts and different than a school in Tarzana. I want to give more control to the principals, teachers and parents to tailor the school to the needs of the students.

Innovation and technology: The tech industry is booming throughout the city. We need to modernize our schools and partner with Silicon Beach to make sure that our children are learning code, have access to WiFi and are prepared for jobs being created by the growth of the tech industry.

Great choices for every family: Each student and family has a unique set of needs. I want to offer multiple options at a variety of types of public schools to every family in the district. If a school is not serving the needs of a student, there needs to be alternative choices.

Human capital overhaul: The district is not investing enough in the professional development for our teachers. Teachers deserve more feedback about what they do well and areas where they can improve. I also support more mentorship programs to help develop educators.

Transparency and accountability: The city has done an excellent job putting where every dollar is spent on an easily accessible website. The LAUSD needs to do the same so parents can see exactly where the money is being spent and hold the district accountable if funds are being mismanaged.

Q: How would you fix the district’s finances and address its unfunded pension liabilities?

A: A pillar of my campaign is increasing transparency and strengthening oversight. If elected, I would focus on three main areas: addressing waste, tackling underlying fiscal issues like the unfunded pension liability for long-term budget success, and identifying and pursuing new revenue streams.

As a former union teacher, board member and community advocate, I look at these issues from the eyes of students, teachers and parents alike. It is unconscionable that the current board has done so little to address such a serious matter — and this is one of the reasons that the LA Times endorsed our campaign. As a member of the board, I will address the unfunded pension crisis head on and make it a priority on day one.

Two years ago the board had a blue ribbon panel do a study of the financial issues plaguing the LAUSD and ignored many of their suggestions. While enrollment has declined, the attendance rate has dropped even more. Increasing student and teacher attendance will not only improve achievement but increase funds to the district. Another suggestion from the panel was to offer lump sums to retirees rather than annual benefits to try and stop the growth of the pension deficits. The district needs to further examine integrating pension benefits with Social Security benefits, which it is currently not doing despite the proposal of the panel. There have been numerous other solutions proposed by experts, but the board continues to avoid addressing the problem. As a member of the board, I will not abdicate my responsibility and will address this issue head on.

Q: What is your position on breaking up LAUSD into smaller districts?

A: It is worth exploring anything that will lead to higher achievement rates for students. A huge component of my platform is returning control to local schools because in a district with over 660,000 students, the needs of students are too diverse to take a one-size-fits-all approach. As a member of the board, I will reallocate resources from the bloated bureaucracy to individual schools. Breaking up the district into smaller districts is not a decision the board can make on its own, but we can prioritize decentralization and greater autonomy for neighborhood schools.

Q: Charter schools are supposed to receive greater autonomy in exchange for better performance. If a charter has lower performance, do you believe it should be renewed? What do you suggest for the charters in LAUSD that are performing below average?

A: I believe that we should be evaluating all schools. Rather than taking a punitive approach as in the past, we should focus on improving all schools in the district. It does not serve the students to shut down a school just to reassign them to other struggling schools. There are several steps that a charter (and all district schools) can take to improve performance, including partnering with other schools for support, creating mentor programs for educators, seeking out additional parental engagement, and the list goes on. Ultimately, the district should be supporting all of its schools through the dissemination of best practices and resources.

If a charter school is not meeting standards, set out for it in its own charter and by the board, then I do believe the board should leverage its oversight powers to force improvement or to close it. It’s never a good day when a school closes, but ultimately the touchstone needs to be not whether a school is opened or closed, but whether students are receiving the highest quality education.

Q: How do you think charter oversight could be done better at LAUSD?

A: We need a fundamental shift in the relationship between the board and charter schools. If a school is struggling, the goal should be to improve the quality of the education that is being provided. I want to promote a collaborative relationship between the board and charter schools, not a punitive one. The board’s antagonism to charters over the past several years has discouraged charters from seeking the district’s help if they are struggling. If the focus of the board is centered around how to improve all schools, it will reduce the number of struggling charter schools in need of additional oversight.

Ideally, the charter division would work with charters during the oversight process to mitigate problems as they arise.  The goal should be to fix problems, not catch a charter doing something wrong to then shut it down.

Q: Do you think LAUSD should be the authorizer of the charters that operate within its borders?

A: The LAUSD board serves as the authorizer for hundreds of charter schools throughout the region. The relationship between the board and the charter community has gone through many fluctuations over the years. Currently, there has been concern about how LAUSD’s charter office and the board itself are overseeing new charter petitions and charter renewals. The board has an obligation to be transparent about its standards for granting new and renewed charter petitions, and this is not happening. It has, understandably, created some tension between LAUSD and charter operators. As a board member, I would work to be more forthcoming about LAUSD oversight and seek greater collaboration wherever possible in order to prevent this kind of mistrust from continuing.

There are some conflicts of interest in LAUSD authorizing charters; to mitigate those, I’d like to see a more transparent and independent process for granting and renewing charters. But a democratically elected school board still needs to have authorizing and oversight power.

Q: It seems most people agree that having a school’s classes held on multiple campuses is not ideal and that charters sharing space with district schools can create friction. What would you do as a board member to help those situations?

A: Under our transparency pillar, I’d like to undergo an honest accounting of district facilities and enrollment so all parties have equal access to information. The fact that some schools are given access to campuses but others are not is both unfair and creating tension within communities. In addition to this audit, I’d like to see LAUSD be more helpful with the CUP (conditional use permit) process and other efforts through which charters try to secure private space. I’d also like us to fix a broken co-location process.

One of the issues that frequently arises from co-located public and charter schools is that the rent is paid directly to the central bureaucracy so there is little to no incentive for public schools to share facilities with charters. I would support the cost of facilities going directly to the public school co-locating with the charter. We also need members of the board to stop pitting parents against parents with divisive rhetoric about charter schools versus district schools. In many cases, the friction is heightened because the charter school is outperforming the district school. We need to encourage a more collaborative relationship so that the district school can improve its performance. With the facilities money going directly to the district school as well as a shift in rhetoric, I believe that performance and collaboration would increase and friction would be reduced.

LA School Report covers the 2017 LAUSD school board race: See all 13 candidate profiles

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