The L.A. school board race: Brutal, expensive and important

The 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 last year but did not work in that capacity, even though his campaign initially claimed that he did.

Zimmer, 47, spent 17 years as a teacher or counselor and founded a community service organization. When he was a first-time candidate, he won the endorsement of both the teachers union and local philanthropists who typically oppose union-backed candidates.

Some union leaders found Zimmer too independent in office and groused about dropping their support — until it became clear four years ago that reelecting Zimmer was their best way to stave off charter-backed candidates. By then, the philanthropists who once liked Zimmer had largely turned against him, some on the premise that Zimmer opposed some policies of then-Supt. John Deasy.

Over time, Zimmer has grown closer to the teachers union, sharing its opposition, for example, to the use of student test scores as a substantial portion of a teacher’s evaluation.

As the only incumbent on the ballot, Zimmer has been in the sometimes uncomfortable position of defending L.A. Unified.

He touts the district’s record graduation rate and rising percentage of students eligible to apply for admission to a state college. On the campaign trail, he’s typically silent, however, about his concern that graduation numbers may have been inflated by a lack of rigor in credit-recovery courses.

Melvoin, of course, brings it up, along with the district’s $13.6-billion unfunded liability for future employee health benefits. If Zimmer hasn’t fixed that by now, Melvoin says, give someone else a chance.

Zimmer counters that, over time, he’s earned employee unions’ trust, which will be needed to make headway on that problem.

If you set aside the mudslinging by the outside campaigns, the other school board contest is about contrasting qualifications and backgrounds.

At a recent candidate forum in Sylmar, Gonez and Padilla agreed that some charter schools are great and some are not. Both pledged to support strong charters and teachers. They both said that L.A. Unified needs to bolster parent involvement and decried the influence of “outside interests.”

It’s difficult to say whether, if elected, they would prove as independent as they claim or fall back on the positions of their financial backers.

Gonez, 28, has about five years of teaching experience, most of it prior to a two-year stint in Washington, first as an assistant and then as a policy adviser to an assistant education secretary in the Obama administration. Last fall, she began teaching middle school science at a charter. (Current District 6 board member Monica Ratliff, who did not run for reelection, was a teacher when she won the seat.)

Gonez attended Catholic schools before graduating from UC Berkeley and talks about nearly dropping out from the stress of working three jobs while in college. She often speaks of her classroom experiences and her family background.

“Growing up in this community, I saw the struggles my mom went through because she was an immigrant, because English wasn’t her first language, because of her skin color,” Gonez said of her Peruvian mother at a recent forum. “That’s what motivates me; it’s the experience of my family.”

Padilla at the same forum responded to questions almost entirely in Spanish. She said later her goal was to address Spanish-language attack ads against her.

Padilla, 29, who also went to UC Berkeley, noted that she went to public schools in her district throughout her childhood, during which she overcame rickets — with surgery to straighten her legs — and gang influences. (Her brother, she said, was not so fortunate and is currently in prison.)

She said her passion is “keeping youth out of jail.”

She has been an organizer for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which promotes economic equality and strong communities, and a coordinator for Pacoima Beautiful, which focuses on neighborhood improvement. She also was a deputy to that area’s city councilwoman, Nury Martinez.

“I love being engaged in my community,” she said in an interview.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

anna.phillips@latimes.com

Twitter: @annamphillips

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