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Why is there so much money being spent in this school board race? District 4 candidates respond

Mike Szymanski | February 28, 2017

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The four District 4 candidates at Monday’s forum.

LA Unified’s District 4 school board race has prompted more than half a dozen candidate forums, a constant stream of mailers, commercials, and phone calls, and near-record campaign spending.

But it wasn’t until Monday night’s forum at the Skirball Cultural Center that the big question was asked publicly.

“Why is there so much money being spent in this race?,” asked moderator and UCLA education expert Pedro Noguera. “What’s at stake here that there is so much attention and why is this race drawing so much money, including from out of the state?”

The race, in which three of the seven board seats are being contested, is on track to become the most expensive school board election in the nation, and District 4 on the city’s wealthy west side is where most of the money is being spent. With just a week to go before next Tuesday’s primary, more than $4 million in outside spending has been recorded, and the candidates have raised more than $1 million.

All four District 4 candidates attended: Allison Holdorff Polhill, Greg Martayan, Nick Melvoin and incumbent school board President Steve Zimmer. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa opened the discussion, addressing the crowd of about 125, many of them students.

• READ MORE: LA School Report profiles the candidates, covers the debates and details the spending at LAUSD Race 2017.

The full debate is online at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Here are excerpts of the answer to this question, which was not asked at any of the other forums. (The discussion comes up about 53 minutes into the video, and each candidate had 90 seconds to answer.)


Why is there so much money being spent in this race?

Greg Martayan: “The reality is that this seat has historically been controlling the conversation. This district represents the 1 percent, it’s the wealthiest district  in the country.”

He noted former Mayor Richard Riordan spending $1 million to unseat Zimmer.

“If you cut through the BS, the reality is that it has a lot to do with contracts. It has a lot to do with people who supply buildings and food and light bulbs and apples. You will see a lot of people putting up money want to make money on the back end once their candidate is in. The reality is there’s a lot of money to be made. The guy who supplies apples to the district is making a fortune because the district buys probably 100,000 apples a day.

“There’s $12.8 billion spent per year … people want to make it on the back end and it’s a power play.”

Allison Holdorff Polhill: “I wish the conversation was how much money at the district level is wasted, it’s in the billions. Yes, there is a lot of money that has gone into this race because particular people have been backed by particular interests and haven’t made inroads and we need to have students have a voice, period, end of discussion. That needs to happen.

“This district has to get itself in fiscal order to have philanthropists directly donate to LAUSD, and I believe we can do that. But we cannot do that if one suggests that the philanthropists who want to benefit kids and want to donate to a failing school district are ill motivated to somehow make money off the backs of the children. We need to end that discussion right now.

“Seriously, when the Titanic is going down and someone throws you a life preserver, you take it.  This district needs assistance. I think we can all get along, but not with this polarizing debate of us vs. them.”

Steve Zimmer: “The money comes in because folks are trying to take control of the school board and they will do it by any means necessary. There are major indicators for success — I understand there can be a healthy debate over a lot of the issues facing the district.

“But the Board District 2 incumbent (Mónica García) is being credited for the same thing I’m being vilified for. If that logic stretches across all the district, it stretches from Board District 2 to Board District 4.

“The charter schools association wants to win a majority of the seats on the school board. We should be honest about it, and people should be open and direct about it. The labor interests want to maintain at least the open door they have.

“So that’s what it’s about. It’s not about truth, it’s not about kids, it’s about power, and so we should just be honest about it, and we should have the conversation and where it will lead if the charter association has a majority of the board and if it doesn’t.

“I understand that if you have to take out the incumbent, you have to wage a ferociously negative campaign, and that’s what has been done. That doesn’t mean everything being said is true and is about kids.

“If we can come together and make all things come true, then our kids would be much better off than with all the money being spent with this campaign.”

Nick Melvoin: (laughing) “I’m in it for the money and want to make billions of dollars.”

“Our contributions are coming in at $50 and $100 and there are no for-profit charter schools in our city. I get that you can’t control outside money coming in.

“I don’t blame Steve that the largest spender in California is labor by far, but when Steve sends a mailer calling all his opponents privatizers and then a day later says he’s collaborative and all for the kids, you can’t have it both ways.

“This is the most expensive school board race. I don’t like it. I want to spend time talking to parents and kids.”

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

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