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Zimmer, Melvoin condemn District 4 phone survey that brings up LAUSD child molestations

Mike Szymanski | January 6, 2017

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Steve Zimmer and Nick Melvoin both called the survey exploitative.

A telephone opinion survey being conducted in LA Unified’s School Board District 4 that repeatedly links child molestation and sexual abuse cases in the district with incumbent Steve Zimmer is being roundly criticized by Zimmer and contender Nick Melvoin.

Presented as a nonpartisan and unbiased poll, the survey focuses almost exclusively on Zimmer and Melvoin, while barely mentioning the other two candidates, Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill.

All four of the candidates qualifying for the District 4 race in the March 7 election plan to meet for the first time on Monday, Jan. 9, at the Speak UP Candidate Forum at the Rose in Venice from 6 to 8 p.m. The forum will stream live on the Speak UP Facebook page.

Both Melvoin and Zimmer characterized the questions in the poll as exploitative for bringing up molestations and child abuse cases that occurred in the district. At least half a dozen times, the pollster repeated, “More than 200 children have been molested and abused under Steve Zimmer’s watch at the school board,” and then asked for reaction to that statement.

“After we have gone through such a vitriolic presidential campaign, that kind of rhetoric is the last place I would go,” said Melvoin, who said he also heard about some constituents getting similar calls and being part of a focus group involving the District 4 race. “I have a lot of respect for Steve.”

Melvoin was particularly surprised about Zimmer being linked in the survey to abuse cases over the past eight years, which have included the sexual abuse of students by a Miramonte Elementary School teacher. LA Unified has paid out more than $200 million in settlements involving 146 students in the case.

“There is no way there could be a connection to Steve and what happened to those children,” Melvoin said. “No, there’s no way he could be blamed for that. My campaign will have nothing to do with a survey like that.”

Zimmer said he wasn’t surprised at the survey tactics. “We all should be deeply troubled by this,” Zimmer said. “What we have seen at the federal, state and local levels over the past few years indicates that there is absolutely no moral compass when it comes to what issues are used to get control of an elected board of education or even state legislature. The most troubling thing is that these were tragedies and crimes that were committed by criminals against children, and to exploit that suffering as a tactic so insults the families who experience this pain and so degrades their dignity that we really all should take stock of our humanity.”

Zimmer said he was glad to hear that Melvoin rejected the survey’s line of questions. “While I appreciate Nick and any candidate condemning these tactics, the absence of a clear directive against these is tacit acceptance of their use,” Zimmer said. “We should all reject this, every candidate should reject this, but also send a very clear message to supporters that we believe that the hope, dreams and aspirations of our children are actually more important than winning.”

The survey was conducted by Las Vegas-based Precision Opinion, which bills itself as “the most trusted name in market research.” The private national opinion polling company would not give any information about who authorized or paid for the poll, nor provide a complete transcript of the questions.

Richard Garcia, elections communications director for the California Charter Schools Association, said he knows of no active surveys going on at this time by the organization, nor has he heard of the polling company. Kim Turner of United Teachers Los Angeles confirmed Friday morning that the LA teachers union has not sponsored this opinion survey.

LA School Report discussed the poll with two people who answered the survey this week, and a staff member who lives in the district also received the call. One of the most diverse districts of the seven in the school board, District 4 spans from mostly Latino communities like East Hollywood to mostly white areas such as Brentwood, from lower-income areas in the Valley to high-income neighborhoods on the west side, from coastal communities like Venice to hillside areas like Topanga.

The pollster asked for likely voters in the school board race and said the poll would take about 10 minutes. The survey lasted nearly 20 minutes.

A typical question was: “What bothers you most about incumbent board member Steve Zimmer?”

The only eligible answers:

“A. The sexual abuse under his watch

B. The increased bureaucracy under his administration

C. He cares more about his own interests than the interests of the children of the district

D. The failing test scores his policies have caused.”

“None of the above” wasn’t an option.

Although both Zimmer and Melvoin said they felt that bringing up the child abuse cases in the survey was exploitative, one parent who asked for anonymity said the abuse cases and the high payouts were relevant.

“When I heard the statements in the survey about the hundreds of kids being molested by teachers under his watch, I thought it was an issue that was important, particularly if the candidate was against procedures to make it easier to fire teachers like that,” the parent said. “Our highest priority is the quality of the teacher and the safety of our children.” The parent also thought that the survey seemed skewed toward Melvoin.

For Melvoin, the pollster asked, “Nick Melvoin believes in school choice and that kids deserve quality teachers” and then asked for reactions, positive or negative. Then there were questions about Melvoin’s pro-charter school stance and “being backed by billionaires” and how that polled with the respondent.

At least nine times, the caller was asked, “If the vote were held today, which candidate would you vote for: Steve Zimmer, Nicholas Melvoin, Gregory Martayan or Allison Holdorff Polhill?” When challenged, the pollster responded, “We ask that many times because in our line of questions we give more information about the candidates to see if that sways how you would vote.”

The lines of questioning included the financial issues of the district, endorsements and backgrounds of Zimmer and Melvoin. Charter schools were also addressed.

The pollster asked: “Zimmer fights school choice and has voted against charter schools every chance he gets.” (Zimmer, who is a known skeptic of charter schools, said he has voted to authorize more charter schools than most school board members in the country.) When told that the statement was not correct, the pollster said the only answers were: “It makes me likely to vote for him, it makes me somewhat likely to vote for him, it makes me somewhat likely to not vote for him or it makes me likely to not vote for him.” Again, “None of the above” was not an option.

“I understand that there are people who disagree with decisions I’ve made and are critical of actions I have taken, if we can’t agree on anything else, I have a very clear and established track record,” Zimmer said. “If any campaign needs to resort to these tactics and this line of pursuing this issue that has within it so much pain in the school communities, it is a pretty dramatic statement about their inability to keep the municipal elections, March 7, about real education in Los Angeles.”

Zimmer expects this to be his toughest campaign. “It will be a tough year, and this March election cycle is about the future of our public schools, but I have a lot of faith in the electorate,” Zimmer said. “There are many parallels about what is going on in the national debate with charter schools and about power and regulation and what is the role of a democratically elected school board.”

Melvoin said, “I think a lot of people are looking at this race and understand how important it is for the future of education. My campaign is looking ahead, not what has happened in the past. If people do not like the tone of the survey they have the right not to answer.”

The national opinion polling company conducting the survey said it is exempt from the National Do Not Call Registry. Those who don’t want calls from Precision Opinion can add their phone numbers to their remove list tab on their website.

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