With LAUSD on the brink of financial disaster and the vast majority of its students failing to meet state academic standards, Speak UP believes it is crucial that we make a change and elect a kids-first candidate to the school board in Board District 4 on March 7.
Speak UP’s endorsement reflects our members’ focus on a single question: Does the candidate put kids first, even when there are competing adult interests that may appear reasonable and appropriate?
Last week we presented a detailed case against the status quo incumbent Steve Zimmer. Now we turn our attention to the two qualified, kids-first candidates in the race, Nick Melvoin and Allison Holdorff Polhill. While voters must choose one, Speak UP is endorsing both candidates because we have avid supporters of each among our parent membership base, and both have demonstrated they will put the interests of kids before the interest of adult special interest groups.
The third challenger in the race, Gregory Martayan, has also been a robust voice for increasing parent power and implementing kids-first change, and we applaud his focus on student safety. While we believe Melvoin and Polhill are more qualified and viable, we hope all three candidates and their supporters will get behind whichever challenger emerges from the primary. (If no one gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates advance to a May runoff.) Let’s take a closer look at the two candidates we’re endorsing:
Melvoin grew up in Board District 4 and after graduating from Harvard went to work as an LAUSD teacher at Markham Middle School in Watts. While Melvoin has deep roots on the West Side and understands its constituents, he also has a fundamental understanding of the challenges faced by the most vulnerable and impoverished kids in the city, and the teachers who teach them.
Melvoin is the only challenger with experience as an LAUSD teacher, and that experience has shaped his desire to become a champion for kids-first change. Despite starting a school newspaper, coaching soccer and rising to become a leader at Markham Middle School, Melvoin was twice laid off along with 70 percent of his staff. Because layoffs are based solely on seniority rather than teaching ability, Melvoin saw that schools in low-income communities where younger teachers are concentrated unfairly gutted by these policies.
He tells the story of one student in Watts who overcame odds to earn a 4.0 average. Because of the layoffs, the student was subjected to a series of rotating substitutes, one of whom arrived the day grades were due. Knowing nothing about the students, the sub arbitrarily gave everyone in the class a C, destroying the hard-working student’s perfect grade point average.
Melvoin was outraged by this injustice and worked with former mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan to bring an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of his students, challenging those quality-blind layoff rules. He also testified in the Vergara v. California trial on the same topic.
In surveying Speak UP members, quality teaching is the No. 1 parent priority when choosing a school for their kids. We like the fact that Melvoin had the courage and independence to stand up to his own union to help make sure every child has an effective teacher in the classroom. That was a bold, kids-first move.
“I had no choice but to act,” Melvoin wrote in our Speak UP candidate questionnaire. “I worked with...kids and parents to craft a case that said, quite simply, that the interests of kids must come before the interests of adults. Despite winning a historic settlement, the adults fought back, and kids are continuing to get short-changed.”
Melvoin was encouraged to run by parents, who have been the driving force behind his impressive grassroots campaign. Nick joined the race more than a year before the election and has spent that time meeting with parents and students at nearly every school across board district 4 and hearing their concerns.
Melvoin’s extensive knowledge of education policy issues gleaned from his years as a teacher, attorney, organizer, director of a camp for homeless children and adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount’s school of education is now matched by on-the-ground knowledge of specific community and school-site issues facing parents and kids across the West Side. He’s written about some of those issues and potential solutions here, here and here, and as a result, the board has already begun to adopt some of the ideas he suggested.
Melvoin’s efforts and appeal are reflected by the fact that he is the clear frontrunner in terms of grassroots fundraising. As of Dec. 31, he had raised $270,031 from about 895 individual donors, including many parents and even students over 18. That’s more than three times the $85,392 Zimmer raised from 190 donors -- many of which are adult special interest PACs who stand to benefit financially from board decisions -- and more than candidate Kate Anderson raised the last time Zimmer was challenged.
Melvoin’s kids-first message is inspiring. He’s relentlessly focused on raising student achievement and wants to shine a light on the way the district operates, ushering in an era of radical transparency in terms of finances and facilities by putting all the information online.
His breadth of experience across the district and in multiple school models also makes him unusually qualified to cut through divisive rhetoric his opponent Zimmer uses to divide and scapegoat families based on the type of school kids attend. In addition to working within a traditional LAUSD school, Melvoin has served on the board of two charters schools, one on the West Side and one on the East Side, and he will clearly represent the interests of all kids, not just some.
“All too often this district silos its charter and traditional schools and pits them against one another rather than inviting cooperation and collaboration,” Melvoin wrote in the Jewish Journal. “Rather than learning from high-performing schools throughout the district—traditional, pilot, teacher-led, magnet and charter—and replicating success, the district has pitted these schools against each other and forced parents, the innocent bystanders in this equation, to get in line between thousands of others all looking for high-quality school options.”
Melvoin believes the way to bring parents back to district schools is not to pick on charters but to give all district schools the same charter-like autonomy so they can compete. He also has proposed common-sense solutions to incentivize cooperation between district and charter schools sharing campuses, instead of fomenting conflict, as Zimmer has done.
In a time of intense political division, Melvoin is a bridge builder. After receiving a law degree from NYU, Melvoin worked in President Obama’s White House and in the U.S. attorney’s office on civil rights issues. He also worked as pro bono legal counsel on Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, and he is on the Board of the Los Angeles County Young Democrats, which just endorsed his candidacy.
Melvoin’s progressive and innovative vision has inspired a young generation of Millennial voters to get involved in this school board race – one where nearly 70 percent of the voters are generally over age 55. He has also been a strong critic of President Donald Trump and his choice for education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
But Melvoin’s kids-first platform in support of quality school choices, and his desire to balance the budget, cut the bureaucracy and bring more autonomy to local school sites appeals to parents across the political spectrum.
When Riordan endorsed his candidacy, he wrote: “He knows the system is not working for all kids. Two-thirds of students are not performing at grade level in English. Three quarters are not performing at grade level in math. Nick does not accept this status quo as ‘good enough.’ He will fight to improve our schools for all our kids…I am supporting Nick because I believe he is tough enough to turn LAUSD around.”
While Melvoin has been a member of United Teachers Los Angeles and understands the perspective of its members, his campaign is not funded by the organization, and he has demonstrated a willingness to challenge any of its policies that don’t serve kids. We believe Melvoin has the necessary independence to take on the tough decisions that are surely coming amid LAUSD’s financial crisis. Cuts are inevitable, and when the time comes, we have no doubt Melvoin will put the interests of kids first.
Speak UP’s platform for a kids-first agenda includes core values of transparency, autonomy, quality schools choice, excellent teachers in every classroom, accountability and responsiveness to parent concerns. On all of these issues, Melvoin is on board. As a candidate, Melvoin has already proven himself to be accessible, responsive and hard working. He brings energy, innovative ideas, focus, dedication and vision to the job, all of which makes it an easy choice to enthusiastically endorse his candidacy.
Allison Holdorff Polhill
While Melvoin is the only challenger in the race with LAUSD teaching experience, Polhill is the only qualified challenger who is a parent. And the LAUSD school board sorely lacks parent representation, which may explain why parent voices are so often ignored.
Polhill, an attorney and mother of three, has a strong record of kids-first success during her six years as a member of the Board of Trustees of Palisades Charter High School, an independent conversion charter that was formerly a traditional LAUSD school.
PCHS serves a diverse group of 3,000 students from more than 100 Los Angeles ZIP codes, and 34 percent of the school’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Because LAUSD approves the school’s charter and owns the property, Polhill has had extensive experience working with the district.
Polhill’s commitment to giving every child an excellent education was evident in her work as a board member. PCHS faced a crisis when LAUSD abruptly cut funding for the buses that transported the school’s most vulnerable students across the city. She recognized how disruptive and destructive this would be for kids and their families and lobbied hard for the school to pay for the buses until every then-current student graduated.
After that, Polhill worked hard to find the funding to keep the buses and to ensure that families willing to travel across the city for a high-performing school could continue to have that choice. In an era of increased school segregation, this helped maintain socioeconomic and racial diversity at the school, which benefits all kids.
Polhill has also proven to be a skilled collaborator and has worked closely with the schools’ UTLA teachers. Because most independent charter schools are not unionized, this experience is rare and yet highly valuable for anyone joining the LAUSD board.
Polhill knows first-hand how contentious salary negotiations can be. As she told parents at the Speak UP forum Jan. 9, she spent “six years in the trenches negotiating with Pali/UTLA. And let me tell you something, it was not a cakewalk. There was a lot of bad blood…My three kids that are sitting here got pulled out of class by their teachers who said, ‘hey, your mom’s on the board. What is she doing?’ A lot of these same teachers are supporting me [now].”
She worked closely with fellow board members to seek the help of a mediator and communications specialist to turn conflicts into an opportunity for improved school-wide communications and climate. Instead of insulating herself from outside opinions and rivals, her philosophy was to jump in, engage and find common ground and mutual understanding, all while ensuring that student needs and fiscal responsibility remained the top priorities.
Polhill’s down-to-earth, understated style masks a toughness and serious resolve that has produced results. During Polhill’s tenure, PCHS had (and continues to have) a balanced and healthy $30 million annual budget.
While LAUSD faces a $13 billion unfunded lifetime health benefits crisis, which could lead to increased class sizes and teacher layoffs, Polhill and her colleagues saw the need to act early to address this same issue at PCHS. She helped to establish a benefits committee to ensure that funds were set aside to fund lifetime health benefits for employees to whom they were promised. The school and the committee has also taken steps to align benefit promises with fiscal realities for more recent employees – all to ensure that the school remains fiscally strong and employees secure in their jobs.
In fact, during the height of the financial crisis when LAUSD students and teachers suffered through extensive layoffs, PCHS did not lay off a single teacher. Those are kids-first results.
Polhill also helped negotiate changes to the UTLA contract to increase teacher accountability. When she started on the board, most teachers had not had an administrator visit their classroom in years, and it was not unusual for them to be granted tenure without a thorough evaluation. Polhill emphasized that the board and administration would not grant pay increases without agreement on additional accountability measures, including an increased number of formal evaluations, impromptu classroom visits, and more oversight and feedback during the probationary period for new teachers.
Finally, we appreciate that Polhill understands what the job of a board member is and how it differs from that of administration. She knows the dangers of boards veering into micromanagement at the expense of far more important issues for students.
“Presently the district is a bit of a rudderless ship,” she said on our Speak UP candidate questionnaire. “In searching for LAUSD's governance polices, I found there was no consistent policy per se - 365 pages of various government rules passed at different points in time. This is not an effective governance policy for the second largest district in the United States. This is a huge problem that interferes with the board's ability to be student focused.”
Very early in her board tenure at PCHS, Polhill realized that board members did not agree on the very nature of their job and whom they were serving – thereby severely limiting their ability to address challenges and to continually improve the school. She invested a great deal of time upfront to work with her fellow board members to define their collective role and to create a set of board policies to guide and focus the board’s work.
As an example of how much of a problem this is at LAUSD, Polhill points to a recent 13-hour LAUSD board meeting in which the board went round and round about milk waste in LAUSD cafeterias. “The board was opining on whether they should sweeten the milk,” Polhill said. “This is a thing that the board should not be spending a lot of time on.” We whole-heartedly agree.
Polhill strongly supports a kids-first agenda, knows what it takes to balance a budget, is comfortable making tough decisions, and has a record of success. As a mother who has years of first-hand experience volunteering at the public schools her three children attended (as a debate coach, chair of booster organizations and more) she brings an organic base of parent support to the race. Speak UP enthusiastically endorses her candidacy.
We know that voters must choose one candidate to support in March, and we encourage our members to pick their favorite. By endorsing both, we are rooting for Melvoin and Polhill to be the top two candidates to emerge from the primary in March. Either of them would be an excellent addition to the LAUSD Board and a massive improvement over the incumbent. But if only one makes it through, we encourage Melvoin and Polhill supporters to unite against Zimmer in May. If that happens, there is a real opportunity for positive change on behalf of all kids.