L.A. school board candidates tackle questions on tenure, charter growth, graduation rates

On Tuesday, voters in two regions of Los Angeles will go to the polls in a pivotal school board election.

In one contest, school board President Steve Zimmer, 47, is facing challenger Nick Melvoin, a 31-year-old attorney who’s worked recently for groups trying to limit union influence and promote the growth of charter schools. They are vying to represent District 4, which stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley.

In District 6, in the east Valley, Imelda Padilla, 29, a community activist and labor organizer, is running against Kelly Gonez, 28, who teaches at a charter middle school. The winner will fill the seat of Monica Ratliff, who did not run for reelection.

None of the candidates has children.

Melvoin and Gonez are supported by charter-school advocates, Zimmer and Padilla by school-district employee unions.The campaign spending and messages have been dominated by supporters of charter schools on one side and teachers unions on the other.

Because it’s difficult to get past their overblown and false claims, The Times submitted the same questions to each candidate to clarify where they stand on some key issues.

Portions of their answers, along with some context, are presented below.

Exactly how, if at all, would you change the current tenure and seniority system? Should there be tenure at all? How long should it take to earn tenure? Should it have to be re-earned every few years? How should the layoff system be changed if all? Strictly seniority based? Strictly evaluation based?

Both Melvoin and Gonez favor extending the time required to earn tenure. Under state law, fully credentialed teachers can earn the strong job protections of tenure near the end of their second year in the job.

As far as the “last in, first out” rules for laying off teachers, Gonez supports “the formation of a commission with teachers, principals, parents and academics to look at what works best for the students, teachers and LAUSD as a whole.”

Padilla said she is open to new ideas to improve the tenure process, but hasn’t staked out a position. Regarding seniority, she said, “layoffs should not be strictly seniority based. I look forward to exploring a hybrid idea, but ideally I would look forward to managing the budget in a way that we would never have to deal with the pink-slip era again.”

Before attending law school, Melvoin worked for two years as a low-seniority teacher at L.A. Unified during a period of layoffs. As a result, his job was at risk and he had to work several months classified as a temporary teacher. He said he feels strongly that layoffs should be based on performance evaluations and not time on the job. He has participated in lawsuits to limit teacher seniority rights.

“Both teacher tenure and seniority-based hiring/firing systems need reform,” he said. “As a teacher in Watts, I had firsthand experience with these policies and fought for their revision. I remain concerned about the inherent inequities in how layoffs affect students as well as teachers.”

Zimmer said the district, during his tenure, developed rules that protect teachers with certain skills, and noted that the district subsequently agreed to protect schools that would be disproportionately harmed by layoffs.

Zimmer said he is open to extending the length of time needed to earn tenure but that other steps are more crucial to improving teachers’ skills and keeping high-quality teachers in the field of education.

“We need to make sure that training and support systems from universities are stronger and that we are broadcasting a positive image about the field of education,” he said. “And once a teacher is in the classroom, we need to offer continuing support and opportunities for career advancement without leaving the classroom.”

Melvoin, Gonez and Padilla agree, but Melvoin in particular places a greater emphasis on limiting current teacher job protections as a centerpiece of reform.

(Most tenure and seniority rules are part of the state education code, however, so L.A. Unified’s unilateral actions are limited.)

Are there any limits that should be placed on the growth of charter schools in LAUSD?

State law limits the grounds on which a valid charter petition can be denied — no matter how many charters already exist — although some charter critics are trying to stretch that interpretation or change state law.

Zimmer says that he would prefer to limit charter-school expansion, when possible, to charters that are offering real innovation. He wants the district to focus on making sure that existing charters — along with district-operated schools — are offering high-quality programs. L.A. Unified, he said, leads the nation in the caliber of its charter-school oversight.

Melvoin said placing any limit on charters is premature. “We need to invest in traditional schools so that their excellence eliminates the need for more charter schools,” he said. “That’s a natural limit to charter growth, and the best one to ensure that all kids are getting access to a high quality education.”

Gonez said she does not support an “arbitrary” cap on charters, but “we must ensure that schools are only being opened when there is a real, significant need in the community and that we are being conscientious of potential saturation and over-proliferation.”

Padilla’s views are similar to those of Gonez, although she added that the district’s budget situation is one factor to take into account. “If there is a transparent application for a charter that serves all children, I will review that application on a case-by-case basis.”

To what extent, if any, is this election about expiring union contracts and the unions’ desire to protect generous retiree benefits?

Gonez: “I disagree with this analysis. … And as a teacher, I believe that the hardworking men and women who have dedicated their lives to our schools should receive the competitive salary and benefits to which they are entitled.”

Melvoin: “If you read [the teachers unions’] campaign literature, they do appear to view this election as about teacher contracts and compensation. I view this race as about what’s best for the more than 600,000 kids who attend LAUSD schools.”

Padilla: “I don’t agree. There are different things being negotiated every year. What’s at stake is: Are we going to have representatives who are willing to bring both sides to the table, who know how to work with both sides?”

Zimmer: “The election is about: Are we going to continue the real progress that has taken place largely because of the collaboration among our teachers, our other employees, the administration of Supt. Michelle King and this Board of Education? … Collective bargaining is part of that equation, of course.”

What specifically would you change, if anything, in the efforts to make all L.A. Unified students eligible to apply to a state college? Any thoughts about the credit-recovery efforts last year that allowed many students to make up classes they had not passed, which contributed to a record graduation rate?

All the candidates express concern about the rigor of credit-recovery classes that contributed to L.A. Unified’s record graduation rate last year.

All the candidates want to move toward requiring all students to earn a grade of C or better in college-prep classes because that’s the standard necessary to apply to a state college in California. In recent years, L.A. Unified has adjusted its graduation requirements and course offerings to push more students on the college path. The percentage of those students has increased, although the district still accepts a D as a passing grade, which means that students are allowed to graduate without being eligible for a Cal State or University of California school. (A student can receive a D in some required classes and still attend some other four-year colleges as well as community college.)

Padilla: “I put myself in the shoes of the student and I see that the district has failed in distributing information of what it is to be college bound. That’s why students are asking about getting more counselors over and over again.”

Melvoin: “I want to give more schools the support they need so that we mitigate the need for online credit-recovery programs. I want to avoid the situation where the board is scrambling to rubber-stamp diplomas to boost graduation rates. When you have math proficiency rates of 27% and yet graduation rates of over 80%, how can the board explain?”

Gonez: The district needs to emphasize “the quality of their high school diploma. … We should be collecting and analyzing data on our graduates' college enrollment, rate of remediation, retention, and college completion as well as workforce readiness.”

Zimmer: “We need to get more first teaching right so that we don’t have to do as much credit recovery, and we need to make sure that credit recovery is rigorous, engaged and led by teachers not computers.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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