Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member Steve Zimmer has had an interesting first year in office.
Besides having to cast difficult votes on the possibility of laying off thousands of teachers, Zimmer, who represents Westchester, Venice and Mar Vista schools in District 4, has also seen growing disenchantment with a reform movement among a segment of Westchester parents and teachers.
Proponents of a breakaway from LAUSD were enraged after former Superintendent of Local District Three Michelle King fired Dr. Bruce Mims, the principal at Westchester High School, in May. Mims was hired by the hiring committee and the governance council at the high school, two components that make up the local school site management plan that is a part of Westchester autonomy.
Or so proponents of autonomy thought.
With a cacophony of voices arguing for starting a charter high school and initiating their own school district in Westchester and a series of articles by The Argonaut detailing these events as a backdrop, Zimmer recently discussed his thoughts about what was most important to him as a school board leader in the wake of increasing discord between parents and LAUSD.
“Actual autonomy is something that the district has really struggled with,” Zimmer told The Argonaut during an interview after the school year ended. “The struggles that have taken place are an unfortunate part of the growing pains of achieving meaningful autonomy in Westchester.”
Zimmer, elected in 2009 to replace Marlene Canter, said this past school year had been a time of “listening and learning,” and he now feels that he can begin to address many of the critical elements that he believes are necessary for autonomy to be viable in Westchester.
“I completely support the Family of Schools in Westchester and I believe they should have a larger say in who is hired at Orville Wright (Middle School) and at Westchester High School,” the LAUSD board member said.
Zimmer’s reference to hiring practices at each of the five Westchester schools that are taking part in the autonomy movement is one of the biggest points of contention between those at the forefront of the reform initiative and LAUSD officials. In the wake of the district’s public support for autonomy, many of the school site councils, parents, teachers and other parties were under the impression that the governance councils were able to hire whom they wanted to lead their respective schools.
Monique Epps, the director of iDesign, the department charged with facilitating autonomy, said there had been confusion regarding what authorities had been granted to local control proponents.
“Some autonomies are easier to grant than others,” Epps explained. “The district still maintains the right to hire and fire teachers.”
Mims’ firing was especially galling to parents like Ann Wexler, who now supports having a charter high school in the wake of the former principal’s dismissal.
“I think it’s fair to say that autonomy doesn’t exist anymore,” she asserted. “I think it’s a charade and a fraud.”
Epps said the governance councils’ recommendations at both schools would be taken into consideration.
“In terms of selection, we will make sure that they will be involved in the process going forward,” she pledged.
Zimmer said he has spoken with members of the iDesign staff regarding the importance of local school-based input into decision making.
“They are very clear about my feelings on that,” he said.
He said that the district has the opportunity to win back reluctant parents and community members who have soured on autonomy.
“If we can select two game-changers, I think the stakeholders could give us a chance to show them that we are interested in making this work,” said the board member.
Calling the difficulties a “struggle” that those long involved in the effort to break away from the nation’s second largest school district face is an understatement, said Westchester/Playa Education Foundation President Kelly Kane.
“Westchester will never give up on autonomy,” Kane, one of the early leaders of local control, vowed. “We have not given up on autonomy; we’ve given up on LAUSD.”
Regarding calls for a charter high school, Zimmer said he would support an affiliated charter school or several pilot schools, but under certain conditions.
“It would have to be a plurality of the stakeholders that want to see a charter,” he explained. “I would also want to make absolutely certain that no student who lives within the boundaries to attend Westchester be excluded from an independently-run school for any reason.
“That is one aspect that (proponents) of a charter school should know about me; I will not support a charter that seeks to deny any students for the wrong reasons.”
The cost to begin operating a charter school can be quite expensive, says James Stapleton, the former principal at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester.
“At Palisades Charter High School, they had to hire an accountant to handle all of their money,” said Stapleton, who was Paul Revere Charter Middle School’s principal before coming to Orville Wright and will be moving to Stoner Avenue Elementary School in the fall.
Karen Wolfe, a Venice resident whose children attend Ocean Charter School in Del Rey, has seen the benefits that independent charters can provide as an alternative to lower-performing traditional schools.
“The idea behind charter schools was innovation and smaller learning environments,” said Wolfe, whose son will be in the first graduating class next year of the K-8 school.
But Wolfe, a former member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, says she has also seen things that have alarmed her about some charter schools.
“In concept, I think they’re fantastic; but in reality, it’s very important to have a board that has educators on it, and we only have one,” she said. “If you don’t, there may be decisions made that are not always in the best interests of the school or the students.”
Zimmer realizes that parents like Kane and Wexler are beyond discouraged with LAUSD. That makes how iDesign handles the process of selecting the new middle and high school principals all the more critical, he noted.
“I understand the concept of ‘once burned, twice shy,’” he said. “We are in a serious transition period that can be challenging, exciting and a little scary.
“But it also gives us a chance to get it right this time,” Zimmer continued. “I am committed to a process of engaging stakeholders for clarifying and determining the terms of autonomy.”
Kane wonders why Zimmer has not been more outspoken about recent events in Westchester.
“From what I can see, he spent a lot of his time pushing (LAUSD’s) parcel tax initiative. To me that’s like giving a case of Jim Beam to an alcoholic,” said Kane, whose two children attend Westport Heights Elementary School in Westchester. “We don’t need to give any more money to that black hole of dysfunction.”
The parcel tax measure, which was on the June 8th primary ballot to raise funds for the school district, did not pass.
Zimmer said he felt it was “inappropriate” to inject himself into recent turmoil for a variety of reasons, but added that it does not mean that he is not engaged in his constituents’ needs.
“Right now, there is no more important factor than the consensus input of the stakeholders at Orville Wright and Westchester High,” Zimmer said. “Despite our stumbles, I truly believe in the Family of Schools.”
Zimmer was unaware that the school district had not signed an agreement with Loyola Marymount University, which has been providing training and assistance to the iDesign schools.
“That’s news to me,” he said.
The school board member said he firmly believes that there is one more opportunity to make autonomy, a hard fought battle in Westchester, a reality.
“My role is to be an advocate for leadership selection and defining the terms of autonomy,” he reiterated. “This is our last chance to show Westchester that we are serious about autonomy and our relationship with the Family of Schools.”