Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan drops $1 million in support of a campaign to unseat LAUSD board incumbent Steve Zimmer

By Gary Walker

LAUSD board candidates Gregory Martayan (from left), Nicholas Melvoin, incumbent Steve Zimmer and Allison Holdorff Polhill during last month’s Speak Up candidate forum in Venice
Photo by Maria Martin

The last time Westside voters were choosing who would represent them on the LAUSD board, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg catapulted a local election onto the national stage by pumping more than $1 million into campaigns supporting school choice reformers — and opposing incumbent Steve Zimmer.

Four years later, it’s former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s turn to give Zimmer a run for his money.

Earlier this month, Riordan contributed $1 million to the independent expenditure committee “L.A. Students for Change Opposing Steve Zimmer for School Board 2017,” setting the stage for what could become the most expensive school board race in the country. The group has raised an additional $490,000 to oppose Zimmer, currently president of the LAUSD board.

Seeking reelection to a third term in the March 7 primary, Zimmer faces three challengers: former teacher Nicholas Melvoin, parent and educator Allison Holdorff Polhill, and public relations specialist Gregory Martayan.

The four Westside school board candidates are slated to debate each other at Loyola Marymount University on Monday, Feb. 6.

As of Jan. 26, the four candidates have raised a combined $531,000 in direct contributions to their campaigns.

Melvoin, who is most likely to benefit from Riordan’s independent expenditures, leads the pack with nearly $300,000 in direct fundraising, including a $15,000 contribution from a group affiliated with charter schools and another $15,000 from Riordan.

Zimmer had raised $93,207, Holdorff Polhill $74,700 (including $20,000 from the same charter schools group backing Melvoin), and Martayan $62,225, according to campaign filings.

Independent expenditure campaigns are also supporting Zimmer and Holdorff Polhill, most notably the United Teachers Los Angeles contributing $170,000 in support of Zimmer.

Riordan, a proponent of charter schools, told The Argonaut he’s more impressed by Melvoin than he is dissatisfied with Zimmer.

“I’m not doing this to defeat Steve Zimmer; I’m doing it to help elect Nick Melvoin,” Riordan said. “Nick’s family has been friends of mine for many years. He’s one of the brightest young men that I’ve ever met, and we need more people like that on the school board.”

One of the 2017 campaign’s earliest endorsements came from Speak Up, a parent organization that advocates for school choice and is opposing Zimmer. They’ve endorsed both Melvoin and Holdorff Polhill.

Although campaign spending seems to revolve around school choice issues, Melvoin contends that he and his campaign are about much more than that.

“What my campaign represents is a paradigm shift from an emphasis on bureaucracy to kids and parents,” Melvoin said during a December candidate forum in Venice, during which he highlighted his experiences as both a teacher and an education reformer.

Melvoin did not return calls for this story.

Holdorff Polhill, a former Palisades Charter High School board member, has been focusing on the district’s $1.46 billion budget deficit in her public appearances — a focus that she says will remain at the top of her mind throughout the campaign.

“I want to educate voters about how important fiscal responsibility and balancing a budget is. More people are becoming aware of LAUSD’s budget crisis,” she said.

While she has support from charter backers, Holdorff Polhill said she is no shill for charter organizations.

“I’m not just Ms. Charter thing. I’m in favor of all public models of education,” she said. “I really hope that voters are going to look at a candidate like me who is a product of public schools.”

Martayan is painting himself as the race’s grassroots candidate.

“I’m the only candidate who can’t be bought by the special interests like the others,” he asserted. “Our message is about safe schools, accountability and transparency.”

Despite the dire picture that his opponents paint of LAUSD, Zimmer says the district is on the move, noting that several schools in his Westside and Central Los Angeles district have posted improved standardized test scores and are experiencing surges of positive energy among staff, students and parents.

“As I engage in this campaign, I submit to the voters that it’s not important that every proposal or initiative was the right one at the right moment. That is less important than if we’ve passed what I call ‘the soul tests’: Have we done things in such a way that says excellence is for all students and dreams can come true for all students in public education? I submit that we have,” Zimmer said.

“No one should question why I’m here doing what I do every day,” he continued. “There’s no one else in this campaign who has a record of putting the priorities of all children — not just some children — first.”

The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa and the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce are cohosting a candidate forum from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 6, in the Roski Dining Center in University Hall on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. Call (310) 645-5151 or visit for more information.