Speak UP Endorsements: The Case Against Steve Zimmer

Many Speak UP members are just returning from a weekend of activism at the Women’s Marches in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and The Bay Area. And many are asking, how do we harness that energy, and where do we go from here?

We hope that our members will march on, channel that activism at a grassroots level and get involved in the March 7 LAUSD school board election, which will have an enormous and direct impact on the lives of our kids for the next 5 ½ years.

Our entire analysis of the Board District 4 race is through the lens of a kids-first agenda. Does this candidate and do his or her policies and proposals help our kids receive an excellent education? That is our sole focus and question.

When it comes to the two-term incumbent facing reelection, Steve Zimmer, we have an eight-year record to examine. During his tenure, which includes two years as board president, LAUSD has fallen to the brink of financial disaster because of gross fiscal mismanagement. The district is currently at risk for bankruptcy and state takeover. 

Academically, the vast majority of LAUSD students are failing to meet state standards in math (72 percent failure) and English (61 percent failure), and the achievement gap remains a terrible blight. Forty-two percent of the kids that managed to graduate last year did so only with questionable online credit recovery classes whose quality and rigor are sub-standard.

Zimmer frequently infuriates our parent members with inconsistent leadership, doublespeak on school choice, broken promises, vote abstentions, as well as decisions made in the dark that have pitted parents against one another and divided communities. Zimmer has vocally opposed reforms that would have made it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. And his management of district facilities has lacked transparency, honesty and fairness.

All of this has contributed to parents leaving the district for private schools, charters and nearby school districts – a loss of enrollment that has exacerbated the financial crisis LAUSD now faces.

But most importantly, Zimmer often puts the needs of adults – specifically his adult special interest campaign donors – ahead of the interests of kids. This was especially glaring when he voted to shut down several high-performing schools successfully serving the city’s most vulnerable low-income kids – decisions that have already been reversed in part by the Los Angeles County Board of Education.

Fortunately, there are two strong, kids-first challengers to Zimmer in the race that Speak UP has decided to endorse: Nick Melvoin and Allison Holdorff Polhill. We will outline our reasons for endorsing these two candidates in a separate blog post. But first, we’d like to get into a more detailed account of why parents should say no to Zimmer and vote for change on March 7.

                                                     District Finances

In December, LAUSD informed state and county governments that the district might not be able to meet its financial obligations in the next two years because it faces a cumulative deficit of $1.46 billion through the 2018-2019 school year. Nevertheless, LAUSD has increased its certified a staff by 22 percent under Zimmer’s watch as enrollment has declined – while cutting teachers. That’s not a kids-first agenda.

LAUSD also faces an unfunded liability for pension and other post-employment benefits of $13.6 billion, making LAUSD the only school district on a list of top 10 government entities across the country that can’t afford their obligations. Even so, Zimmer voted to extend benefits to part-time workers, without finding a way to pay for and honor those promises. 

If LAUSD does not get its fiscal house in order, the district may go bankrupt and get taken over by the state. That would be a disaster for both kids and employees. Nevertheless, Zimmer minimizes the problem and has been unwilling to stand up to his special interest donors to make the tough negotiating decisions needed to head off what may be coming – drastic cuts to teaching staff, increased class sizes and cuts to the school years, all of which will harm kids.

                                      Weak Leadership and Broken Promises

Zimmer lacks leadership and the courage to make tough decisions, which is reflected in the number of times he abstains from difficult votes. Zimmer even abstained from voting on hiring a superintendent in 2011 — arguably a board member’s most important task.

More recently, Zimmer abstained from voting on the school calendar, saying he disagreed with the overwhelming will of his constituents. The result is that parents and kids are left without a voice, and he ducks responsibility for unpopular results.

There’s a vast chasm between Zimmer’s words and his actions. Zimmer talks about putting kids first but often waffles and fails to follow through. Parents are left stunned and distrustful when LAUSD winds up doing precisely the opposite of what he promised. Zimmer’s back-room decision-making style is often cloaked in secrecy and creates division between groups of parents, which weakens parent power.  

Examples are numerous:

*      Zimmer purports to be a strong supporter of WISH charter, a national model of inclusion for kids with special needs. But when WISH’s petition to expand to high school was up for a vote, Zimmer abstained after his ill-fated plan to make the program a part of Venice High was rejected by his board colleagues, four of whom backed WISH without him. Afterward Zimmer complained that his colleagues were “disrespectful in not giving any credence to the board member who knows their district the best…They did not defer to my valid perspective.”

*      Zimmer promised parents at the highly successful Broadway Mandarin Immersion elementary their own new $30 million building in Mar Vista, but after poor outreach to the community led to protests, LAUSD scrapped those plans and decided instead to cut the program in half. Parents had to spend $25,000 on a lobbyist and pubic relations person just to get the district to listen to parents demanding their program be restored, which never happened in full.

*      Zimmer negotiated a closed-door plan to put portions of Playa Vista Elementary School and a new middle school on the campus of Orville Wright middle school in Westchester, which would have displaced WISH charter and created two similar and competing schools on the same campus. When word leaked, and community uproar ensued, Zimmer and LAUSD broke promises to give the new middle school its own distinct administrator and tried to fold the program into Orville Wright, which led to an exodus of PVES parents from LAUSD.

*     A year later, Zimmer proposed a new semi-autonomous community middle school extension of PVES in partnership with Loyola Marymount University at the Westchester high school campus. LAUSD conducted wide community outreach in advance. But when enrollment priority details were released, Westchester and Playa Del Rey residents protested they were being shut out of a district school located in their community. Zimmer ignored more than 400 parents who signed a petition requesting equal access to the school.

                                            School Choice and Transparency

While Zimmer told parents at the Speak UP forum Jan. 9 that he supported school choice, a week later in a newsletter to constituents, Zimmer wrote that “funding vouchers and charter schools has caused real and significant injury to the most vulnerable children.”  

Doublespeak aside, Zimmer had one of the worst records of all the board members on school choice last year. He frequently fails to support high-quality schools, and he recently voted to shut down several schools that were serving kids well. Zimmer often sides with his campaign donors that view charter schools as competition rather than the parents and kids who choose these schools. And he echoes their rhetoric about “privatization” that falsely equates public charters with private school vouchers.  

Zimmer’s divisiveness, scapegoating and blaming of an “other” for the district’s problems has echoes of the divisive presidential campaign and the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Anti-charter rhetoric has led to little kids being harassed and even violently attacked. This needs to stop. 

Zimmer also has been a vocal opponent of the Prop 39 law that is supposed to give charter schools equal access to school facilities and has been no help in solving co-location tensions. During Zimmer’s tenure, LAUSD has shipped charter kids from his district far across town and split them across multiple campuses in a process that has been opaque, unfair and a huge burden for families. None of this is a kids-first way to operate, and many charter families believe it’s a deliberate form of discrimination designed to undermine the stability of their schools. For example:

*      Zimmer voted against the creation of Westchester Secondary Charter School, which was approved by Los Angeles County instead. LAUSD then denied WSCS space at Westchester High, claiming there was no room, only to turn around and offer the same space to the new LMU-LAUSD middle school. Meanwhile, LAUSD sent WSCS packing to an entirely different community, causing enrollment to plummet. Zimmer met with a group of parents and promised to help the school find a facility and then did nothing. By the end of the process, he refused to meet with parents at all.

*      When kids at Citizens of the World Charter Mar Vista were being harassed during its first year of operation by neighbors, one of whom turned violent, Zimmer promised to help. Instead, LAUSD kicked the school off its campus on a technicality, forcing it to scramble to find pricey private space or accept a controversial co-location that did not offer enough classrooms for the program. A subsequent facilities offer far from its private site forced the school to knock down walls in its church location, turning every two classrooms into three, and to convert a former pot dispensary into a classroom.

*      Zimmer abstained from the vote to authorize City High School, an extension of the successful City School, one of the highest performing middle schools in Los Angeles. City High was approved without his support, but the school was forced to shut down after poor co-location offers far from its middle school led to lost enrollment and a private site that ultimately proved unworkable.

*     With 56 percent of LAUSD middle schools receiving the lowest possible ranking on state tests, parents face a dearth of quality options. Yet Zimmer has not helped parents at Open Charter magnet who want to expand the successful elementary school to middle school. And he voted against allowing Goethe charter to expand to middle school, despite its successful elementary school program.

*      Zimmer recently voted to shut down three Magnolia schools, two of which were ranked in April by U.S. News & World Report in the top 100 high schools in California. Between 2011 and 2015, the three Magnolia schools sent 92 percent of its graduates to college and 95 percent of its seniors completed A-G college readiness standards — numbers that far outperform district averages. The Los Angeles County Board of Education reversed the decision.

                                                 Treatment of Constituents

We applaud Zimmer for championing the needs of the district’s undocumented immigrants following the election of Trump, and we share his concerns for the district’s most disenfranchised children. But that alone is not enough to overcome his many flaws as BD4’s representative. We often get the sense, in fact, that Zimmer does not really like representing the parents who live in his own board district.

*      Zimmer infuriated parents at a community meeting in Westchester last year when he trivialized their concerns for improving local schools by telling them that kids in other parts of the district were getting killed – suggesting they had nothing to complain about. This is despite the fact that Westchester residents don’t have automatic access to a single school where at least 50 percent of the kids are meeting math standards, causing a mass migration to charters and nearby districts.

*      Zimmer accused West Side parents who don’t choose their neighborhood schools of being motivated by a desire to segregate. “The parents buying up the houses, who have more resources, have a lot of fear about public schools…and when you give them the opportunity to really engage and create integration and diversity in their neighborhood public schools, they don’t want to.” They exercise school choice, he said, so they can be “with another demographic of kids.”

We believe that’s an excuse for Zimmer to avoid taking responsibility for LAUSD’s underperforming schools. Zimmer’s district has some of the best schools in LAUSD but is also home to some of the lowest-performing schools in the entire state. These schools are failing the mostly low-income kids of color who do attend. Blaming the district’s problems on parents who exercise choice instead of improving district schools is not a kids-first way to operate.

                        Accountability: Ensuring Every Child Has an Excellent Teacher

In surveying our Speak UP members, 92% of parents said that “excellent teachers” were “very important” in their choice of a school – more than any other factor. Zimmer claims to support the concept of excellent teachers in every classroom, but he has opposed reforms that would make it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers, as well as changes to a system that bases layoff decisions on seniority alone rather than quality.  

Zimmer was a vocal opponent of the Vergara v. California trial that challenged the current system of awarding teachers permanent tenure after 18 months on the job. Once they receive tenure, it can take up to a decade and about $500,000 on average to dismiss ineffective teachers.  

Parents at Walgrove Elementary School, for instance, struggled to remove a teacher who reeked of alcohol and was accused of helping kids cheat on state standardized tests. Parents ultimately threatened to withdraw their kids from the school en masse, and the teacher was transferred to a school with an almost entirely low-income minority population. This led several Walgrove parents to sign an affidavit in support of the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial.

The institutional hurdles to removing harmful teachers also contributed to a culture of bureaucratic indifference to complaints, and the results have been downright awful for kids.

In just the past four years, LAUSD has paid $300 million in settlements to kids who were sexually abused by LAUSD teachers and employees, often after LAUSD missed warning signs and “ignored or overlooked direct complaints,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Even worse, an LAUSD lawyer blamed a 14-year-old girl in court for her own sexual assault.

Nevertheless, Zimmer has minimized LAUSD’s sex abuse problem, as well as the district’s culpability and the systemic problems that led to it. Instead, he chalks it up to “a tiny, tiny fraction of employees who were criminals masquerading as teachers.”

When LAUSD did start cracking down and removing teachers from classrooms while accusations of misconduct were being investigated – a process that has cost the district $15 million a year to pay these teachers to do nothing while substitutes cover their classes -- Zimmer complained that LAUSD went too far and that “the rights of employees suffered.” Zimmer also complained that it was wrong to make LAUSD’s sex abuse problem a campaign issue.

That’s not a kids-first mindset. We believe Zimmer’s outrage and priorities are misplaced. There is no greater parent concern than the safety and wellbeing of our children. And we wish Zimmer expressed as much indignation about the fact that kids have been abused as he has about which topics are fair to explore in his reelection campaign.

Parents are fed up with having kids’ needs take a back seat to the needs of employees and Zimmer himself. Given that his campaign is funded largely by adult special interest groups, we don’t see that changing with Zimmer at the helm. Parents have lost trust in Zimmer’s leadership, and if he is reelected, we suspect enrollment will continue to decline as more parents give up hope and continue to vote with their feet.

For these reasons, we urge our members to vote for Nick Melvoin or Allison Holdorff Polhill on March 7. And if no candidate wins outright in the March primary with 50 percent or more of the vote, and Zimmer is one of two candidates advancing to the runoff, we urge supporters of both Melvoin and Polhill to coalesce behind whichever one of them will face off against Zimmer again in May.