By Gary Walker
When Steven Zimmer ran for the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education in 2009, he was aware of, but could not predict how the demands for “choice” by parents involved in the charter school movement would occupy his time in managing the nuances between respecting their educational decisions as well as honoring those who were rebuilding their neighborhood schools.
When he decided to seek reelection last year in District 4, the school board member did not anticipate that he would be doing so against a well-funded opponent and the backdrop of an election that has drawn national attention.
District 4 includes Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey and Westchester schools.
In a recent interview, Zimmer, who is running in the March 5 election against Kate Anderson, a Mar Vista resident and parent advocate, talked about the influx of outside money into the District 4 race as well as some of the accomplishments that he has been a part of during his first four years in elected office.
“It’s unprecedented,” the school board member began, referring to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $1 million contribution to the Coalition for School Reform, an organization that is supportive of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy. Its contributors, like Deasy, are unabashed advocates of creating more charter schools and include billionaire developer Eli Broad.
“It’s a little surreal,” Zimmer added.
The interview was conducted during the weekend that the Academy Awards were announced, and Zimmer reflected upon the importance and the national press his race has garnered. “I’m nervous about watching the Oscars because I’m afraid that the race will be mentioned in one of the acceptance speeches,” he quipped.
Zimmer said he has understood from the beginning that the District 4 race represents a “tipping point” in a battle between charter supporters and those who are fighting to enrich and improve neighborhood schools. “I’ve always suspected that the election in some way could go national, but not in the way that it has,” he said.
The school board member called Bloomberg’s donation “brazen” and added that he is not against what some call a “reform” movement with charter schools. Zimmer has publicly praised charter operators such as Green Dot Public Schools, a charter operator seeking to expand to the Westside and has voted for several charter renewals.
His supporters say that he has been a dedicated public servant and that the incumbent has been at the forefront of promoting a renaissance in the performing arts and languages at all levels.
“My primary reason for supporting Steve Zimmer is that he is a strong supporter of the LAUSD Arts Education Branch and all of their programs in the schools,” said Robin Lithgow, a Venice resident who headed the branch until she retired in June.
Another supporter said Zimmer has the experience as well as the advantage of seeing what schools need from the ground level that Anderson does not.
“It is so important that we re-elect Steve Zimmer because no one has a deeper understanding of educating our students than Steve,” said Karen Wolfe, whose two children attend Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey.
“His opponent, as co-chair of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Education, Culture and Arts Committee, didn’t hold a meeting for nearly a year.”
The incumbent mentioned a furlough agreement with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, as one of his significant accomplishments. “No one ever, ever thought that we would get our labor unions to agree to the types of concessions that they gave in order to stabilize our schools,” he said. “We’re talking about reductions between 12 to 15 percent in salary.
“Of all the things that I’ve accomplished, I’m most proud to have led this district through the financial crisis by always, always promoting partnerships, shared sacrifice in the face of devastating budget cuts.”
He also points to anti-bullying initiatives and a resolution he sponsored that altered LAUSD’s nutrition policy as some of the things that he thinks have been critical to the district.
In Westchester, Zimmer drew criticism from some parents who were angered with his vote to turn Westchester High School into a magnet school that is now known as Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet in 2011. “I think we did the right thing there,” he said. “It was very difficult.”
In retrospect, the school board member said he wished that he had known how important it was to rehire some of the high school’s teachers. “Had I understood that better, I think that it would have worked out a lot better and one of my regrets is going into that vote without knowing that rehiring them should have been an essential part of the process,” he acknowledged. “I don’t regret (the conversion), but I regret that I led people down a road where they didn’t always know what was coming.”
Zimmer’s supporters take issue with what they feel are unfair and unjust attacks on his record by entities working on Anderson’s behalf.
“When I see the Coalition for School Reform and Bloomberg attacks that say that Zimmer voted to ‘cut arts education,’ I literally see red,” Lithgow said. “This is a fiction. Steve Zimmer fought harder than anyone to restore them.”
Zimmer drew a comparison between members of his own family and what many children in LAUSD are facing eight decades later.
“My grandmother was a poor immigrant, as poor as some of the children that we work with today, but she knew that through public education, my mother and uncle would have the opportunity to transcend poverty,” he said. “Today, the names of the students may be different and they may have certain demographic differences, but at the end of the day, the dream is the same, and the obligation of the schools is the same.
“To do that at that moment in this country’s history, during the time of a great war and other societal changes that were going on, we can certainly do it now,” Zimmer continued. “I believe in this system and what it can be.”
The school board member feels his election is at some level about choices, a referendum on what the electorate wants to see in public education.
“I remember when the auto industry was bankrupt and President Obama had the choice to outsource it or double down on American workers and invest in people,” Zimmer recalled. “We are at that moment in public education in Los Angeles and I’m ready to double down on people.”