Endorsement

Voters should support independent thinkers Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez for the L.A. Unified school board

The Los Angeles Unified school board has teetered back and forth during the past decade-and-a-half, from a pro-charter, pro-reform majority aligned with the likes of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Broad Foundation to one that is leery of charters and more in tune with teachers’ unions, which tend to be focused on traditional public schools and oppose many accountability measures. This hasn’t always been a bad thing; both sides have their weaknesses and their strengths, and the close split on the board has often, if not always, kept it from going too far off-kilter.

The Times has generally tried to endorse independent-thinking candidates who put students’ education first and employ sharp analytical skills and common sense in making decisions, rather than putting our support behind one ideology or the other. Monica Ratliff has been a strong example of that kind of board member, and we’re sorry to see her leave the board.

In the May 16 runoff election, if our recommended candidates prevail, the balance would tilt slightly again, back toward a somewhat more reform-oriented board.

District 4: Nick Melvoin

It wasn’t easy to choose during the primary between incumbent board President Steve Zimmer and challenger Nick Melvoin in District 4, which includes the Westside and the western San Fernando Valley. Zimmer has been more sympathetic to union concerns and is a frequent critic of the charter movement, but he’s also a thoughtful board member who has voted to approve many charter schools. Melvoin, who has worked for reform-oriented groups, is decidedly aligned with that movement but in a more balanced way than, say, Monica Garcia, who easily won reelection to her District 2 seat during the primary.

But L.A. Unified is in troubled shape financially, and Zimmer is among those who have refused to confront this challenge head-on. The district will have to come up with policies to address its heavy and growing obligations to teachers’ retirement benefits, but Zimmer has been unwilling to lead matters in that direction — or in fact, to even have that discussion at all. This is why we endorsed Melvoin in the primary. We believe in well-compensated teachers, but the district is digging itself deeper into a hole.

A vote in April further crystallized our sentiment. As part of the board majority, Zimmer voted to support state legislation that would be devastating to charter schools. Not only would it take away their means of appealing a local school district’s decision to reject their charter application, but it would also allow school boards to reject charter applications if they decide the charter school would have a negative effect on district finances. As Ratliff pointed out in her dissenting vote, pretty much any charter school could fit that description because of the enrollment-linked funding that leaves the district when a student chooses a privately managed school.

The state legislation, SB 808, isn’t going anywhere fast. For lack of support, it’s been put off to next year’s legislative session. But that doesn’t excuse the vote.

This was a cheap shot in which the board, led by Zimmer, tried to foist the blame for its financial dysfunction onto charter schools instead of looking in the mirror. This isn’t leadership and it’s why, for all Zimmer’s likable qualities, the board needs a change.

District 6: Kelly Gonez

Gonez, a charter-school teacher and a former official in the U.S Education Department during the Obama administration, clearly wouldn’t have voted with the board majority on the charter bill. But she also has spoken in favor of tighter charter oversight and greater transparency to make sure that these schools are doing right by their students. On this and other issues, she comes across as reform-oriented but also as an independent thinker who bases her stances not on rhetoric or ideology but on what the evidence shows. She’s a strong choice for District 6, which covers the eastern San Fernando Valley.

Overall, although some change is needed on the board, it would be a shame to see it return to the days when it reflexively adopted ill-thought-out reform positions, such as the rigid graduation requirement it put in place that it was in no position to carry through on. What’s needed on the board is calm, clear leadership toward a solvent district, leadership that focuses tightly on strong curriculum, talented instructors and better-educated students, at whatever public schools parents choose.

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