A pair of candidates backed heavily by charter school supporters jumped to early leads Tuesday evening in runoff races for two seats on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, with incumbent board president Steve Zimmer in danger of being ousted from the seven-member panel.
According to early ballot tallies, Zimmer had just 39.8 percent of the vote in his bid to retain his District 4 seat, compared to 60.2 percent for challenger Nick Melvoin.
The race for the vacant District 6 seat was much tighter, with Kelly Gonez earning 52 percent of the early vote, compared to 48 percent for Imelda Padilla.
If Melvoin and Gonez prevail, they would join incumbents Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez to create a majority of charter school supporters on the school board. Zimmer and Padilla both had strong support from labor unions.
With the unions and well-heeled backers of charter-school expansion pouring big money into the races, Tuesday’s runoff became what is believed to be one of the most expensive school board elections in history, with an estimated $15 million being spent by and on behalf of the various candidates.
Zimmer led a four-candidate field in the March primary election, but he fell short of the 50 percent needed to win re-election outright. That forced him into the runoff election against teacher/attorney Melvoin, who finished second in March.
Charter supporters — including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad — contend that charters tend to have better results for students and provide more choices for parents, but opponents point to sometimes-questionable management practices, alleging that some of the schools hand-pick higher-performing students to the detriment of others.
Critics also contend that a proliferation of charters — which are publicly funded but often operate free of unions and some regulations that govern traditional public schools — would be a financial hit to the LAUSD, which receives state funding based on enrollment.
During the campaign, Zimmer pointed to a record of rising test scores, decreasing drop-out rates and improving student performance during his tenure.
The former teacher and school counselor also said his efforts have led to the development of student health clinics, supported arts education while increasing parent involvement and helping students “graduate and move onto college and meaningful careers.”
Melvoin countered that the district is failing to meeting the needs of students, with only 27 percent “performing at grade level in math.”
“Too many of our families are left without options,” he told City News Service. “Instead of partnering with parents to ensure children get the best education they can, the district bureaucracy stands in the way of parents and impedes the progress individual schools are making.”
In District 6, Gonez — a former teacher and education adviser in President Barack Obama’s administration — said she is in the race to fight for educational opportunities for all students, regardless of family income.
“I will explore and invest in new, better ways to engage parents and families not just in their schools, but also in the decisions that the school board makes,” Gonez told CNS. “We can do that by modernizing our technology and by making school sites a place for community input.”
In her campaign message, Padilla said she wants to advocate for the district’s most vulnerable students and bring the district to a 100 percent graduation rate.
“Today, too many outside interests burden our neighborhood schools with bureaucratic red tape, making it challenging for quality teaching to reach the desks of students,” she said.
“Rather than encouraging kids to pursue post-secondary opportunities, the (LAUSD) has put forward an adult agenda disconnected from classrooms.”
— City News Service
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