Targeted by a well-funded opponent, Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Steve Zimmer will fight for his political life Tuesday in a re-election battle that could have a major impact on the future direction of the nation’s second-largest district.
Zimmer is being challenged in the District 4 runoff by teacher/attorney Nick Melvoin. Zimmer topped the four-candidate field in March with 46.7 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent he needed to win re-election outright. Melvoin earned his way into the runoff by collecting 32.9 percent of the vote.
The Zimmer-Melvoin battle and the fight for the vacant District 6 seat are seen as potential turning points for the LAUSD, with supporters of charter school expansion weighing heavily in the race. Melvoin is being backed heavily by charter school supporters hoping to unseat union-backed Zimmer, who has opposed the rapid expansion of charters.
In District 6, charter backers are supporting Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez against teachers-union-backed Imelda Padilla. Gonez led the field in the March primary election with 37.2 percent, with Padilla close behind at 31.1 percent.
If Melvoin and Gonez both prevail, they will join newly re-elected Monica Garcia and incumbent Ref Rodriguez to create a majority of charter- school supporters on the seven-member board.
Charter supporters — including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad — contend that charters tend to have better results for students and provide more choices for parents, but opponents point to sometimes-questionable management practices, alleging that some of the schools hand-pick higher-performing students to the detriment of others.
Critics also contend that a proliferation of charters — which are publicly funded but often operate free of unions and some regulations that govern traditional public schools — would be a financial hit to the LAUSD, which receives state funding based on enrollment.
Zimmer points to a record of rising test scores, decreasing drop-out rates and improving student performance during his tenure. The former teacher and school counselor also says his efforts have led to the development of student health clinics, supported arts education while increasing parent involvement and helping students “graduate and move onto college and meaningful careers.”
Melvoin counters that the district is failing to meeting the needs of students, with only 27 percent “performing at grade level in math.”
“Too many of our families are left without options,” he told City News Service. “Instead of partnering with parents to ensure children get the best education they can, the district bureaucracy stands in the way of parents and impedes the progress individual schools are making.”
In District 6, Gonez — a former teacher and education adviser in President Barack Obama’s administration — said she is in the race to fight for educational opportunities for all students, regardless of family income.
“I will explore and invest in new, better ways to engage parents and families not just in their schools, but also in the decisions that the school board makes,” Gonez told CNS. “We can do that by modernizing our technology and by making school sites a place for community input.”
In her campaign message, Padilla said she wants to advocate for the district’s most vulnerable students and bring the district to a 100 percent graduation rate.
“Today, too many outside interests burden our neighborhood schools with bureaucratic red tape, making it challenging for quality teaching to reach the desks of students,” she said. “Rather than encouraging kids to pursue post-secondary opportunities, the (LAUSD) has put forward an adult agenda disconnected from classrooms.”