Zimmer and Melvoin face off in their first one-on-one debate. The most unruly? The audience.
Laura Greanias | April 24, 2017
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Steve Zimmer and Nick Melvoin met Sunday evening in their first one-on-one debate, heading into the final three weeks before the May 16 runoff for the LA Unified District 4 school board seat.
Moderator Dr. Fernando J. Guerra of Loyola Marymount University had to dig deep at times to find daylight between Zimmer, the school board president, and Melvoin as they agreed in large part on many points, such as support for teachers and the arts, and the need for more state funding and decentralizing the district.
But divisions were much more evident in the crowd of about 150 at University High School in West Los Angeles, many of whom sat separated across the auditorium’s aisle like the bride’s and groom’s sides at a wedding.
On the stage, Guerra was pressing the candidates for detailed answers while organizers of the forum, presented by the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils, repeatedly pleaded for the adults to behave because there were children in the crowd and students learning about civic responsibility.
In the end, even the candidates commented on the divisions, or the “energy of the crowd,” as Zimmer called it.
And Guerra, holding up slips of paper filled out by audience members, noted that of all the responses, only two people indicated they had come to the debate not knowing who would get their vote.
• Read LA School Report’s profiles of Steve Zimmer and Nick Melvoin, and their priorities (Zimmer and Melvoin) in the runoff.
Here’s a sample of answers to three of the more contested topics: charter schools’ growing numbers, underfunded pension liabilities, and co-locations of charter schools on district campuses.
Guerra early on dove into the issue of public charter schools, pointedly asking Zimmer, “Why are those who are very supportive of charters endorsing Nick and not you? And what is the role of charters with LAUSD?”
Zimmer responded by saying he has “voted for the overwhelming majority of charters” in the district, which has authorized more charter schools than any in the country.
“What I support is innovation and autonomy. And one way it’s taken place is charters,” he said.
Zimmer said he believes LA Unified’s public charter schools have been “an example in the nation and an incubator for change,” and he highlighted one in particular, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, for leading the district in bilingual education. He also lauded project-based learning. “Some of our charter partners have done a great job of elevating that.”
“But where we differ is saturation,” Zimmer said.
Melvoin agreed. “We have different ideas of saturation points,” he said. “When every school in LA County is a school we would send our kids to, then we have saturation.” But for now, with 40,000 students on waitlists for LA’s public charter schools, “Our platform is to support charters, so that mitigates the need for charter growth.”
He said that “with 130,000 students in charters, parents have answered that question” of what role charters have in LA Unified. He said charter growth should be slowed, but he challenged Zimmer: “There’s no talk on the board on what’s the next phase of charters.” Instead, Melvoin said, “We re-litigate the issue of charters nearly every Tuesday,” a reference to Tuesday board meetings and in particular last week’s meeting, when a discussion about support for state legislation opposed by charter organizations devolved into board members debating whether charters should exist in LA Unified at all.
Guerra turned to LA Unified’s unfunded liability for post-employment benefits, which tops $13 billion. “Nick is right,” he said, ”That’s a time bomb.”
Melvoin noted that LA Unified is the only school district on a list of top 10 government entities across the country that can’t afford their pension obligations.
Zimmer said, “There’s going to have to be some grand compromise around unfunded pensions in the state,” which, he added, is not sending LA Unified all the funding it’s owed.
Melvoin pointed out the problem is something that the district “should have been fixing in the last eight to 10 years,” and that “to not consider that incoming teachers have a different benefits structure is irresponsible.”
Melvoin said he and Zimmer agree that the state needs to pay the district more, but “when we are more responsible and more transparent, we’ll have more money.” And, he added, “that’s not going to happen without reform.”
Zimmer, who is backed by teacher unions, answered, “If you don’t have trust, if you don’t have the ability to sit down with your labor partners, you have a major, major obstacle.”
Zimmer referenced health care, a big part of United Teachers Los Angeles’ next round of negotiations with the district. “We have to look at many different things, even as it relates to health care.
“It is possible that we, together with our labor partners, will have an agreement that will save us money and save us jobs.”
Melvoin responded, “If you had done that years ago, we would not have” such high liabilities.
Guerra pressed the candidates, saying, ”There is an incredible unfunded liability, and I don’t think of either of you have an answer. How can you handle it going forward? It could destroy the school district, and it needs to be handled.”
Melvoin said, “We need to bring urgency to the issue of solvency.”
Zimmer said, “We do have to look at a single provider for health care. Our LAUSD family is willing to sacrifice for the stability for our kids.”
Much of the anger directed at Zimmer in the campaign has come from west side charter parents, and a substantial portion of Sunday night’s debate centered on the issue of charters co-locating, or sharing space with traditional district schools on the same campus.
Melvoin stated that the problems stem from “a lack of trust and a lack of transparency.”
“Schools are told different things about different campuses,” he said, such as one charter being told there is no space at the school site they requested, then finding out another charter had been granted that same space.
“Parents don’t trust the district. Two schools in the last two weeks had to close their doors while still serving kids. That happened in part because of the lack of trust.
“When a school is losing (rooms), that’s a conversation we have to start having, and I don’t know why we haven’t had it in the last eight years.”
Zimmer responded that “no one in this campaign is celebrating the closure of any school.” But he said, “The willingness to wrestle, to find balanced solutions, is what is” needed. “We can point to areas where families have come together, even co-located schools.”
Melvoin tied the co-location debate to his campaign’s call for greater transparency at the district. Parents need to know “true enrollment patterns,” he said, faulting the district for telling some groups of parents about pending co-locations and not others. “Give parents equal access,” he said.
Zimmer challenged him. “To say the reason for this struggle is solely a lack of transparency” is wrong. “There’s been a lot of pain,” he acknowledged, but he added, “I’ve never been afraid to do my honest best to find solutions to different situations. I am proud of our efforts to bring people together.”
Guerra wrapped up the evening by asking the candidates, if they had a magic wand, what governing structure would they create.
Melvoin’s choice was local control, such as more control over curriculum, hiring and firing, and the ability to bring in local artists to support arts education in the schools.
Zimmer said, “I would make every single school in every neighborhood a community school,” with campuses opened late, supporting communities’ needs, with services such as health clinics. “We have the budget to match our ideals. Schools can and should be the anchor.”
Guerra then asked, “What is the one compelling lesson you’ve learned in this campaign?”
“This hunger for bringing people together,” Melvoin said. “This room is an example of how divided our community is. We have parent groups against parent groups, teachers on teachers. We want to be unified,” and parents want to stop the fighting. “This means we need to support our teachers now … and make sure we are serving everyone equitably.”
Zimmer said what he learned is that “the truth still matters. If you tell the truth, if you are able to really talk about the issues that families care about, if you talk about the ideals of public education, they still matter.”
He referenced the audience: “I understand there is a lot of energy. I don’t embrace the division, but I do embrace the energy. I believe we are going to lead the nation in the ideals of public education, for immigrants and for all students. Public schools can be the place where all dreams come true.”
On Wednesday, Melvoin will attend a board runoff forum held by the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization at 7:30 p.m. at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills. However, Zimmer, who teaches Wednesday nights at Occidental College, will not be there. Sharon Delugach, volunteer campaign coordinator for Zimmer’s campaign, said another San Fernando Valley debate is in the works, possibly at Pierce College. And she confirmed that Zimmer will attend a May 6 forum for all four candidates running for the District 4 and District 6 board seats at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ downtown headquarters.
Read LA School Report’s full series of coverage at LAUSD Race 2017.
This article has been updated to correct that Zimmer will not attend Wednesday night’s event in Woodland Hills.