Four vie for a Westside seat that could tip the ideological balance of the LAUSD board

By Gary Walker

As outside groups spend big on TV, radio and direct-mail advertising to define what’s at stake in the contest for the Westside’s seat on the LAUSD board, the candidates themselves have begun drawing stark contrasts among themselves in their own words.

Three candidates hope to unseat incumbent LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, who is seeking reelection to a third term. Education consultant Nick Melvoin taught at an LAUSD middle school before losing his job to seniority-based layoffs during the recession. Allison Holdorff Polhill is a parent organizer and longtime member of the Palisades Charter High School board of directors. Gregory Martayan is an education advocate and public relations specialist.

With two other LAUSD board seats on the ballot elsewhere, the outcome of the race could redefine whether allies of the teachers unions or charter schools control the nation’s second-largest school district.

All contenders agree that the campaign has taken a turn toward mudslinging, due in large part to the influence of independent expenditure committees that had already poured over $2.5 million into the race as of a Jan. 26 reporting deadline.

Case in point: A committee by the name L.A. Students for Change borrowed the split-photograph imagery of the poster for the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” to cast Zimmer as a villain in “Making of a Scandal,” that being the district’s iPad rollout debacle.

As for the candidates themselves, Martayan is now arguing race is an essential but overlooked component to the school board contest, as the majority of LAUSD students are Latino or African-American. He’s accusing Zimmer of overlooking the needs of black and Latino students and says Brentwood resident Melvoin and Pacific Palisades resident Holdorff Polhill are tone-deaf to the needs of minority students.

Holdorff Polhill took umbrage at Martayan’s accusation, saying that she has fought to keep minority students at Palisades Charter High School after the district cut its transportation budget.

“Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. I think it’s beyond offensive to be painted in that way,” she said.

Melvoin also brushed the criticism aside as a “baseless” accusation.

In four separate interviews, each of the candidates spoke to The Argonaut about their positions on the controversial co-location of charter schools on traditional public school campuses, allocation of the school district’s $7.6-billion annual budget and the future of public schools in Los Angeles.

Gregory Martayan

Martayan’s mantra at each campaign forum so far has been “safe schools, accountability and transparency.” Of the four contenders, he’s raised the least amount of campaign funding but is among the loudest in decrying the millions of dollars being thrown into the race.

“You have outside money that is coming in to a buy a race that is going to dictate the futures of Angeleno children.” he asserted. “Holdorff and Melvoin have an elitist approach to schools that doesn’t belong in the city of Los Angeles.”

Martayan said it was unfair for charter groups to blame teachers for what some call “failing schools” and pledged to be an advocated for educators.

“Teachers are not to blame for a system broken long before they even came in
to the system. They are not to blame for the unfunded liabilities. Whereas Zimmer uses divisive language to pit traditional school and charter parents against each other Melvoin and Holdorff use the same divisive language about teachers,” Martayan said.

Westchester Secondary Charter has been advocating for a building in Westchester, and if elected Martayan made them a personal promise that he might find difficult to keep.

“I guarantee that, as their board member, I will get them the space anywhere they want it. It is up to the board member to negotiate the contracts to get what they need,” he said.

But Martayan also acknowledges that charters have no legal right to space wherever they want it.

“If I don’t fix the Los Angeles Unified School District future generations will be in peril,” Martayan said.  “I have no choice but to take office and fix a broken system.”

Allison Holdorff Polhill

Holdorff Polhill has focused on LAUSD’s $1.46-billion budget deficit, touting her ability to work with unions, teachers and school administrators as one of her biggest advantages.

“I had great success being on the board and was able to turn things around. Right now, LAUSD has a $15 million unfunded liability in teacher health benefits because of this board’s mismanagement,” she said.

Holdorff Polhill has promised to establish an advisory committee of administrators, outside financial experts and teachers union members to confront future health costs.

“When you’re in a crisis like this, you need to bring all parties together in order to see the problem and diagnose it,” she said.

While she is enjoying support from charter-affiliated groups, Holdorff Polhill said voters should not be deceived into thinking that she would advocate for charters at the expense of traditional or magnet schools.

“My mantra has been always I am not supporting one model over another. I am not running on a charter platform. I’m not Ms. Charter thing,” Holdorff Polhill said.

On co-locations, she recommends moving up the dates when traditional schools are notified that a charter school will be coming to their campus and organizing parents and teachers on both sides long before the next school year begins.

Both she and Melvoin are drawing from similar pools of support, but Holdorff Polhill draws a sharp distinction: “I think we’re different ages and have different experiences that we’ll bring to the board. I have a lot of governing experience. I would consider myself an expert in governance.”

How she will win the race, she said, rests largely on her “tenacity, my commitment to kids and the personal testimonials that I have.”

Nick Melvoin

Melvoin has received a number of significant endorsements, including that of the Los Angeles Times and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who has poured $1 million in the race. Riordan helped fund the 2012 Vergara vs. California lawsuit over seniority-based teacher layoffs, in which Melvoin testified.

“I compliment Steve [Zimmer] on his dedication and passion,” Melvoin said, “but in the debates we hear a lot from Steve about starting this or that. The question a lot of people have is why after eight years on the board are we just starting this?”

When it comes to charter co-locations, he acknowledges there are problems and would like to see the city controller’s office conduct an audit of all city-owned properties where charter schools that cannot find space might be able to lease public or privately owned land.

Melvoin said there are important contrasts among the candidates.

“Out of all the challengers, we’ve gotten the most granular on what we want to do on day one — not just platitudes but ideas. It’s one thing to say that the district has problems. It’s one thing to be critical of the budget and how the current administration has handled it, but it’s another to offer solutions,” he said.

Melvoin acknowledges that his testimony in the charter advocate-funded Vergara vs. California — which would have stripped teachers of certain existing due process rights, protections according to seniority and permanent-hire status — may hurt him with teachers but said he isn’t anti-union.

“The thing about Vergara is if unions don’t get on board with some reform, the [political] right is going to come with a battle axe after us. The union should be leading on these issues,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, as a believer in unions and collective bargaining, to see them so unwilling to reform.”

Melvoin is optimistic about the campaign.

“What’s resonating is that after eight years of broken promises and stagnated student achievement, voters want a new voice,” he said.

Steve Zimmer

Zimmer says he is running to “finish the job that I started eight years ago.”

There have been ups and downs and mistakes, he acknowledged, but believes his record as a board member who has faced extremely difficult governing decisions should earn him another term.

Zimmer points to endorsements from Mayor Eric Garcetti and Rep. Maxine Waters as significant, and not just because of their elected status.

“These are not people who always get involved in school board races, especially when it’s this contentious,” he said.

The antagonistic nature of the campaign has not, however, caused Zimmer to rethink his reelection strategy.

“All we know how to do is to tell our truth and really put our faith in the idea that ultimately, when you walk with the truth and the dreams of their families, that the truth will actually cut through and be more powerful,” he said.

“But we’re worried that some of these lies will stick,” he acknowledged. “In each of these campaigns, you either become more of yourself and less of yourself. I’m not willing to be dishonest. I hope people will see through all of the distortions and lies.”

Unlike his opponents, Zimmer has been a vocal advocate for having state legislators review Proposition 39, which assigns charter schools rights to operate on school district property.

“It should be abolished and retired to the annals of bad public policy,” Zimmer said. “It has pitted families and schools against each other and is far too vague.”

Zimmer said his time on the board, especially navigating the district through draconian state budget cuts during the recession, has given him the experience necessary to tackle today’s problems.

“When I was asked to run again, I hoped that people will be able to see that’s what is needed: Someone who can step in and hit the ground running. There are skills and experiences that have been earned to bring people together,” he said. “You can’t buy that. You can’t smart your way into that, and you can’t fight your way into that.”