The L.A. school board race: Brutal, expensive and important
he four people vying for two pivotal seats on the Los Angeles Board of Education agree on at least two things: The campaign has been brutal, and there’s a lot at stake.
The nastiness leading up to the May 16 runoff election has been generated by independent campaigns set up on behalf of the candidates because of the election’s importance.
Charter school partisans and unions had spent about $13 million combined through Friday. The candidates themselves had spent another $1.5 million.
If the charter-backed candidates prevail, charter advocates will win their first governing majority on the seven-member body. If the election goes entirely the other way, unions will strengthen their influence on a board that leans pro-labor. In that scenario, the board would be more likely to limit the growth of charters in the nation’s second-largest school system, which has more charters and more charter students than any other school district.
“Think of this as the great Charter War of 2017,” said Dan Schnur, former director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “The stakes are unusually high, substantively but even more symbolically. The outcome of these races will determine control of the largest school district in the western United States.”
Union-backed school board President Steve Zimmer and charter supporter Nick Melvoin are vying for the seat in District 4, which stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley. Kelly Gonez, with charter support, and Imelda Padilla, with union backing, are competing in District 6, in the East Valley.
Zimmer, the lone incumbent, has borne the brunt of the pummeling. And although holding him responsible for the state of the school system is fair game after eight years in office, most of the attacks in a flood of mailers are exaggerated or false.
So too with Zimmer’s opponent, Melvoin. Though negative mailers have correctly noted that both Melvoin and the Trump administration support the rapid expansion of charter schools, Melvoin is neither a Republican nor a Trump supporter.
Charters are privately operated public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Most are nonunion, and all are competing with district-operated schools for students and the education funding that comes with them.
The most powerful charter groups have opposed any board member who supports limiting the growth of charters. Zimmer finished a strong first in the March primary, but he would be in trouble if supporters of his two other primary challengers consolidated behind Melvoin.
Zimmer has voted to approve or renew most charter petitions, but he also has spoken forcefully about putting the brakes on charter growth. Otherwise, he has said, the Los Angeles Unified School District faces catastrophic financial losses that would cripple its ability to serve students not enrolled in charters.
“Outside of a charter school that is offering real innovation, I cannot see why we would agree to authorize more and more charter schools,” Zimmer said in an interview. “Instead, we need to make sure that all our charters — and all our other schools — in Los Angeles are serving students at the same level as some of our highest performers.”
Limiting charter growth is not something that Melvoin is willing to entertain “until every school in L.A. is a school we would send our own kids to,” as he put it during a recent forum.
Melvoin, 31, grew up in Brentwood, the son of a prosperous Hollywood producer. He went to Harvard University after attending Harvard-Westlake, a prestigious local private school. Then he taught for two years at Markham Middle School in Watts.
Because of funding cuts during the recession and “last-in, first-out” seniority rules, Melvoin was laid off and had to return as a long-term substitute teacher before he was officially rehired.
While still a teacher, he took part in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the seniority system but led to changes that protect faculty at schools staffed primarily by young teachers. Later, he took part in a lawsuit seeking to end traditional teacher job protections — tenure as well as seniority. That effort prevailed at trial court but failed on appeal.
More recently, Melvoin worked for school-reform groups that promoted charter schools and favored limiting union influence. He signed up to be an L.A. Unified substitute teacher The L.A. school board race: Brutal, expensive and important - LA Times:
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