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Packed stage, empty house at District 3 ‘game show’ debate

Craig Clough | February 13, 2015

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Candidates at the District 3 debate last night at North Hollywood High. (Credit: United Way)

Candidates at the District 3 debate last night at North Hollywood High. (Credit: United Way)

With six candidates crowding the stage, the LA Unified District 3 school board debate last night more often resembled a game show, as candidates were forced to limit answers to either a minute or 30 seconds.

Incumbent Tamar Galatzan, who is seeking a third term in the March 3 elections, seemed to be thinking the same thing when she was asked about the complicated and controversial issue of the “teacher jail” system.

“In 30 seconds?” she said, laughing a little to herself as the crowd joined her.

As five challengers jockeyed for position in efforts to define themselves in the most crowded of the four board elections, Galatzan’s track record was a frequent topic of conversation and critique. Challengers Elizabeth Badger Bartels, Filiberto Gonzalez and Carl Peterson all lobbed a number of criticisms at her, while Ankur Patel and Scott Schmerelson mostly stuck to their own ideas or experience.

The turnout at North Hollywood High was low and appeared to be fewer than 100. If anyone won over parts of the small crowd it was impossible to tell as the audience was directed not to applaud or make any noise.

What follows below is a breakdown of the debate, from each candidate’s perspective.

Tamar Galatzan

The most frequent criticism was her enthusiastic support of the controversial $1.3 billion iPad program and former Superintendent John Deasy.

Galatzan responded to the iPad criticism by acknowledging its problems while defending its impact and continuation. She did not respond to Gonzalez’s claim that she was a member of an ad hoc committee that oversaw the Common Core Technology Program’s rollout and never attended a single meeting.

Galatzan made a case for her reelection by pointing out that despite heavy budget cuts, graduation rates and other student achievement measures had risen during her terms on the board. She argued that since improvements came under tough times, she was the right choice in the current economic upswing.

When asked if she was a more reform-oriented or union-oriented thinker, she pointed to the Los Angeles Times’ endorsement of her that characterized her as the most independent board member, leaving out the part that said the endorsement came with “misgivings.”

Elizabeth Badger Bartels 

Bartels spent most of the night criticizing Galatzan, but an attempt at a critique turned into the biggest gaffe of the evening when she claimed she wrote a letter to Galatzan asking for help for her special needs child nine years ago but got no response. Galatzan correctly responded that she wasn’t even a board member nine years ago. Instead of correcting her math, Bartels insisted, “Oh yes you were.”

Bartels said Deasy was allowed to “run amok.” She had frequent criticisims of the iPad program and said she supported spending money on computer labs. Like all the candidates, Bartels said she supported a raise for teachers, but she did not suggest a specific amount or offer ideas on how it would be paid for. She also stated her independence from either reform- or union-oriented ideals.

Filiberto Gonzalez

Gonzalez was the most aggressive in attacking Galatzan and perhaps the most effective in that he used specific examples. He pointed to her role in blocking the reappointment of Stuart Magruder to the bond oversight committee and claimed she gave a different answer about truancy at the debate than she gave at a recent Chatsworth Neighborhood Council meeting. Galatzan countered by saying she was talking about different topics and his characterization was unfair.

Gonzalez split the difference on the iPad program, saying the money spent on Internet upgrades at schools was worhtwhile, but he opposed the purchasing of iPads. He was also the challenger who proposed the most specific ideas, such as returning to “peer assisted review” for teacher evaluations.

He voiced general opposition to the expansion of charters and several times seemed to be attempting to make the case that he was the candidate for union-oriented voters.

Ankur Patel

Patel avoided criticism of Galatzan, focusing more on himself and his views. He said increased focus on libraries and computer labs was preferable to iPads and the district could learn from studying successful charters. He said getting rid of charters at this point was not likely. He also said students should have a role in teacher evaluations, and as a board member he would direct more resources directly into the classroom.

Patel also said he was “in the middle” between the reform and union camps.

Carl Petersen

Petersen spent a lot of the night criticizing Galatzan. He said the board failed to successfully oversee Deasy, was strongly against the iPad program — even belittling it at times — and made strong statements against charter school expansion. He also said teacher jail was overused.

On the issue of teacher vs. reform, he said he would be a representative of parents. He was the only candidate to bring up MiSiS, the district’s troubled computer system, and criticized the district for going forward with it when MiSiS was “not ready for primetime.”

Scott Schmerelson 

Schmerelson rarely criticized Galatzan and instead often referred to his vast experience as an LAUSD principal. He pointed out that Galatzan’s LA Times endorsement was “lukewarm” and that he was mentioned as an “intriguing” alternative.

He was heavily critical of Deasy’s management style, voiced support for peer review as a means to evaluate teachers, and said he supported the iPad program but was critical of Deasy’s bidding process. He said the district could learn from charters but that district schools could beat them if given more authority. He also avoided being characterized as either reform or union and said it was important the next superintendent be independently minded to avoid future reform vs. union battles.

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