Students’ hot topics for District 4 candidates: school police, charters, college readiness and the undocumented
Sarah Favot | February 16, 2017
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High school students continued their candidate forum series Wednesday night, this time moderating a panel discussion at LA City College with the four candidates for the LA Unified District 4 school board seat.
It was the second of three forums run by high school students through the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. A panel with District 2 candidates was held on Friday at Cal State LA, and a panel with District 6 candidates will be held on March 1 at LA Mission College.
Wednesday night’s panel was moderated by Karen Calderon, a junior at Alexander Hamilton High School who also serves as the school board’s student representative. The student panelists who asked questions were Maria Cabrales, who also attends Alexander Hamilton High School, and Alejandro Salas and Sharon Sandoval, who both attend the Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts.
The students asked the candidates for LA Unified’s District 4 seat about protections for undocumented students, funding for school police officers versus counselors, restorative justice implementation, increasing college readiness, their position on charter schools and each candidate’s assessment of Superintendent Michelle King’s job performance.
It was the fourth time District 4 candidates have met in a candidate forum. The candidates are LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer, who is seeking is third and final term, Nick Melvoin, an educator and attorney, Allison Holdorff Polhill, an educator and parent, and Gregory Martayan, who owns a public relations firm, is a Los Angeles Police Department reserve specialist and is a parent.
Before the candidates took the stage and the audience of about 120 filled the room on the third floor of the student union, Calderon and the student panelists rehearsed with coaching from Elmer Roldan, United Way’s director of education programs and policy, and Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA.
Once the candidates and audience members were seated, Calderon gave an introduction.
“Growing up in LAUSD schools, I wasn’t aware that there was an LAUSD school board. I wasn’t aware that there were seven adults who decided how to spend a $8.4 billion budget every single year,” she said. “I know that many of us were surprised by the outcome of the presidential election. Many students and families feel scared, many of us feel like your vote doesn’t count.”
She said the forums were organized to turn the fear and frustration into power and opportunity.
“We want to take charge. We want to inspire voters to make it to the polls to believe in us and believe in the power of public education,” she said.
Candidates were given one minute to respond to questions and there was also a lightning round where candidates were given 30 seconds to respond. Questions were also taken from the audience.
In his introductory comments, Melvoin said he wanted to model behavior that students should expect of their elected officials.
“We have just witnessed such a nasty political season and I think for those of who you are looking to go into politics, elected service and I hope you will, it doesn’t have to be mean. Reasonable people can disagree and I think everyone’s here for the right reasons,” he said.
Holdorff Polhill appealed to the young audience by talking about her three children. One of the questions the students asked the candidates was what advice each candidate would give them as 18-year-olds. She talked about her 18-year-old son who graduated from high school in the spring.
“He has a passion and that motivated him to work towards college,” she said.
Martayan emphasized his Los Angeles upbringing.
“I am one of you. I grew up on the streets of Los Angeles,” he said.
“I’ve been here every day for the past 25 years because I believe in your hopes and your dreams and your aspirations,” said Zimmer, who was an LA Unified teacher and a school counselor before he was elected to the board in 2009.
Zimmer appeared to have the most supporters in the audience. He posed for photos after the forum.
After some of Zimmer’s responses, the audience broke into applause, particularly after his answer to a question from the audience about whether LA Unified should require its vendors to use sustainable practices.
Zimmer talked about the district’s food services contract and how he wants to ensure vendors’ nutritional and environmental standards are the highest.
“Along the way we’re going to do everything we can to make this food taste better, that’s the one promise I’m going to make tonight,” Zimmer said. “I want you to know when I make decisions, I make decisions thinking about our students as if they were my own kids, but also our workers as if they were my own mom and dad, and that’s what you should expect from every one of your elected officials.”
The applause prompted a reminder from moderator Calderon that the audience was asked to not applaud in support or opposition for any of the candidates.
Here is a summary of some of the evening’s topics:
On why the district spends more money on school police than school counselors:
“I think the amount of money we put into restorative justice is a joke,” Martayan said. He said he believes the role of the police is to protect a school’s exterior and the role of the counselors is to protect the interior.
“We need to start treating students more like students than suspects,” Melvoin said, noting that at the school where he taught there was a police car parked outside every day. He said his students’ parents and families felt unwelcome because of that, especially those who were undocumented.
Zimmer noted that the district has added psychiatric social workers and counselors, but he said the district needs more wraparound services. He said he believes Los Angeles School Police should be patrolling campuses, not LAPD or the LA County Sheriff’s Department.
“We need to work with the school police and reform our police practices. We don’t need to cut them,” he said.
Holdorff Polhill said the district needs to reverse the amount of money that is being spent on school police and shift it to counselors.
On the role of charters in public education and whether candidates support or oppose charters:
Melvoin said the number of families that have chosen charters shows the district is not meeting the needs of families. He said he thinks charters are one option and he believes in other public school models.
“I think a yes or no question on charters is an irrelevant question because there are so many charters here,” he said. “The question is what now and what’s next?”
Zimmer cited his support for the Academic Performance Excellence Academy in East Hollywood. “There is absolutely a role for charter schools for innovation for being incubators for change, that’s what the charter movement was supposed to be about,” he said. “What I’m opposed to? I’m opposed to deregulation. I’m opposed to the idea that there should be different rules for different schools.”
“We need to make sure that every student can graduate,” Holdorff Polhill said. “Every single family wants what’s best for their child.” She said she supports all models. “I’m not running on a charter platform.”
“Of course I’m for charters,” Martayan said, noting there are charter deserts in Los Angeles. “Let’s cut through the 800-pound elephant in the room, this race is about charter versus non-charter because that’s where the money is coming from. There is big money in this race. There are folks sitting up here who have received $1 million-plus in support to destroy grassroots efforts like mine.”
On Superintendent Michelle King:
Melvoin said he thinks King is a capable leader, but there are areas where she can improve. “It’s been about a year and it’s still the goal-setting phase,” he said.
“I think the superintendent is doing a very, very good job in very difficult circumstances,” Zimmer said. He described the relationship between the board and King as “extremely healthy.”
Holdorff Polhill said she wants every school to have a plan on how it will get 100 percent of its students to graduate. She said she hopes, but she is not sure, those plans are in place. “I think Superintendent King is doing a good job,” Holdorff Polhill said, adding she wants King to implement the recommendations of the Independent Financial Review Panel to address the budget deficit.
“Michelle King is doing a fabulous job so far,” Martayan said.
On protecting undocumented students and families that have mixed status:
“We’re not going to let ICE into our schools, we’re going to protect our families. We’re going to put ourselves in the way,” Martayan said.
“I pledge to protect all undocumented families,” Holdorff Polhill said, adding that she would advocate for partnerships with pro-bono attorneys who could help families that need legal services.
“I really do need to give Steve credit for taking a strong, firm stance against our president and against his divisive, illegal, unconstitutional, deplorable rhetoric,” Melvoin said.
He said he would continue the district’s sanctuary policy and make sure that students feel safe and families feel welcome.
Zimmer wrote the district’s “safe zone” policy that states that the district will not cooperate with law enforcement agencies looking to deport students on LA Unified campuses without a review process. He said the district will not turn over any data to the federal government from students and families.
“We stand strong against this administration whatever may come. We will stand with our families. We will stand with our communities,” Zimmer said.
He noted the policy also includes a network of resources to support students and their families if there is any action near campuses.
There was only one point in the evening that Calderon allowed another candidate to respond because one of the candidates made a personal attack.
It was a response to a question about college readiness.
Melvoin had said the district has “watered down” its high school graduation requirements so that students who graduate with D’s in A-through-G coursework can graduate from high school rather than meeting the minimum requirement of at a C or better for acceptance into the University of California or Cal State systems.
Zimmer said Melvoin’s statement was “absolutely fiction.”
Zimmer cited that the graduation rate has improved since he was on the board from 56 percent to 75 percent while implementing A through G requirements.
“We have implemented the A through G, we have changed the mindset of an entire city about our students, and that is real progress,” he said.
When discussing how to improve college readiness, Zimmer and Melvoin seemed to agree how to get there by creating a “college-going culture” at pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, increasing the number of college counselors and through partnerships.
At the end of the forum, the audience and the candidates cheered for Calderon and the student panelists.
“I have a feeling we’ll all be voting for you someday,” Melvoin quipped to Calderon.
“I’ll be running for president in 20…,” Calderon said.
The students were prepared for more fireworks than occurred.
“I actually expected it to be a lot more heated than it was,” Cabrales said.