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Zimmer and Melvoin in their last debate: good guys with sharp tongues

Laura Greanias | May 9, 2017

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After the debate at Pali High, Steve Zimmer goes over increases since 2011 in LAUSD’s cohort graduation rate and UC eligibility.

They both agree the other’s a good guy.

What they don’t agree on is whether LA Unified is a success.

On Monday night, LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer faced Nick Melvoin in their last debate before the May 16 runoff.

The audience of about 75 at Palisades Charter High School was the most polite of the months-long campaign season, following Principal Pamela Magee’s appeal for “civility and responsibility” — no doubt a reference to a debate a week earlier at University High School where hissing and yelling was repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, shushed.

But the candidates themselves were the sharpest they’ve been with each other, though they both professed “He’s a good guy” and ended with a handshake.

• One week til the election: Read LA School Report’s full series of coverage at LAUSD Race 2017.

Amir Ebtehadj, a junior in Pali High’s student government, moderated the 90-minute debate devoted mainly to questions from the audience, many about charter schools and decentralizing the district.

The candidates right off the bat displayed differing assessments of the district.  

To those who believe LA Unified is going in the right direction, “I am definitively not your candidate,” was Melvoin’s opener. “I believe we can do better.”

Zimmer started with noting it was Teacher Appreciation Week and espoused a “narrative of success.”

Later Melvoin asked, “How can you have only 27 percent of students proficient in math and have a 75 percent graduation rate? Rubber-stamping diplomas is setting kids up to fail.”

Zimmer shot back, “This is the most hateful attack of this campaign.” He held up a paper and read off increases since 2011 in the cohort graduation rate and UC eligibility. “To say there hasn’t been progress may be good for a campaign but is an insult to every kid who’s working hard — and may have had trauma — to get across that graduation stage. … We have reason to be proud.”

The longest question from the audience addressed SB 808, proposed legislation called a “charter killer.” The board’s vote to support it factored in the Los Angeles Times’ endorsement and editorial Tuesday supporting Melvoin. 

“This was a cheap shot in which the board, led by Zimmer, tried to foist the blame for its financial dysfunction onto charter schools instead of looking in the mirror. This isn’t leadership and it’s why, for all Zimmer’s likable qualities, the board needs a change,” the Times’ editorial board wrote.

“This is a statement bill,” Zimmer said. “I don’t believe it will pass as it’s written.”

Melvoin hit back: “If this is a statement bill, why are we taking LAUSD time and lobbyists to fight these outside battles?”

The issue of the district’s $13.6 billion burden in unfunded liabilities for health care benefits also displayed their differences, with Melvoin vowing to address the issue “on Day One” and Zimmer saying building trust with labor partners is key.

“This comes down to an issue of trust,” Zimmer said. “We are in negotiations right now on issues of long-term health liabilities. I can’t share the details. But a shared sacrifice solution may be involved, a differentiated system for current and new employees.” He then vowed current employees’ benefits “wouldn’t be touched” but negotiations “may involve a transition to a single system provider” for health care.

“This is a crisis,” Melvoin responded, adding new benefits packages are needed. “I will address it head on, on Day One” so the district doesn’t fall into state receivership. “If we don’t address this now, it will hurt current employees.”

In closing, Zimmer addressed “lies” in the voluminous mailers and took particular offense at one in which his face appears under a soldier’s helmet with a tank beside him, “because we have tens of thousands on the front lines.”

He said the race is “maybe the most expensive school board election and probably non-mayoral election in the history of our nation,” and said, in the end, “It’s more than just the control of our school board. It’s about fear. We need to have a democracy where people aren’t afraid to run for office.”

Melvoin ended with saying, “I think he’s a really good guy, but this isn’t about Steve and me. It’s about kids and whether we can tolerate 7 in 10 kids failing their math class.”

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