School board member or ... killer? Hard to tell

Are you a Westsider who has recently had the strange and discomfiting feeling that your local school board representative, Steve Zimmer, just might be a cold-blooded killer? Did you start to get the feeling one day recently, soon after you reached into your mailbox?

A campaign mailer targeting the Los Angeles Board of Education president may be responsible for that disturbing association, whether you fully realize it or not. It is based directly on the advertising for the widely watched Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”

Netflix promotions for the show feature a split image of a face that looks like a photograph torn in half. The left half of the face, in black and white, is that of a little boy; the right, that boy grown up, bearded and accused of murder.

The mailer does much the same thing with Zimmer’s face, one side black and white, clean cut; the other, in blurry color, his eye shaded and sunken.

Zimmer’s name appears in the red font and style of the Netflix logo. And the hit piece’s title — in the same font and style of the show — is “Making of a Scandal.”

Underneath that title: “The real story behind the biggest scandal in the history of the LAUSD.”

Zimmer is running for reelection in the March 7 municipal primary against Nick Melvoin, Allison Holdorff Polhill and Gregory Martayan. The mailer is the product of political consultant John Shallman, on behalf of a political action committee that took the name “LA Students for Change.

Three of seven board seats are on the ballot in an election that could tip the balance between allies of the teachers union and allies of charter schools. 

Zimmer’s well funded opposition, including former Mayor Richard Riordan and the political arm of the California Charter Schools Assn., appear more concerned about that balance of power than with the purported transgressions listed in the mailer. 

But to win over voters, the misleading mailer, like another one on the same topic, blames Zimmer for the school system’s notorious iPads-for-all experiment, which the school board formally approved, on a 6-0 vote, in June 2013. 

The district’s goal was to provide an iPad to every student, teacher and administrator in the nation’s second-largest school system, and to deliver the district’s curriculum via the device. It collapsed due to high costs, poor planning and eroding support.

The FBI seized 20 boxes of documents from the district in December 2014 as part of an ongoing investigation into the bidding process.

According to the other iPad-themed mailer, “Zimmer approved a program that stole $1.3 billion from a voter approved bond intended to fix and repair dilapidated classrooms and build new schools. Instead, Zimmer wanted to use this money to purchase iPads that didn’t work.”

It’s true that Zimmer voted to approve the iPad project — as did board members who were and are supported by the same group using these mailers in an effort to oust him. But the full $1.3 billion was never spent because the district canceled the program, and about half of that cost was earmarked for school Wi-Fi upgrades.

The bond money also was not stolen, although critics have said the money should have been used for other purposes.

And while there is a legitimate question about whether it was proper for school bond money to pay for the curriculum, attorneys for L.A. Unified and then-Supt. John Deasy insisted that it was.

The iPads functioned, but the companion instructional effort fell apart.  

Both mailers leave the impression that Zimmer was the man behind the debacle. Both quote him saying, “Never have I failed more.” However, that statement was Zimmer’s attempt, after pressuring Deasy to resign, to accept some personal responsibility for what went wrong — which a number of others never did. The mailers also overstate the significance of two meetings Zimmer had with Apple representatives.

The iPad project was the brainchild and flagship effort of Deasy, superintendent from 2011 to 2014. Some key funders of the anti-Zimmer campaign remained backers of Deasy despite the iPad issues and a second disastrous technology project.

Deasy and his top aides, not Zimmer, appear to be the focus of the FBI investigation. They have denied any wrongdoing.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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