KPCC's LA school board candidate survey: Nick Melvoin, District 4

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151969 full

Nick Melvoin is running for the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Melvoin hopes to represent District 4, which covers much of west L.A., Hollywood and portions of the southwest San Fernando Valley.

Melvoin is one of four candidates running for the District 4 seat. Click here to view survey responses from other candidates in the race.

KPCC lightly edited all responding candidates' answers for spelling, grammar and style. KPCC is presenting candidates' answers in full, but does not vouch for the accuracy of any statements they make. Here are Melvoin's responses to KPCC's candidate survey:

Why do you want to be a member of the L.A. Unified School Board?

I’ve always known I wanted to be an educator, because I know what a great education means to students, to families, and to our democracy. I began my career as an LAUSD teacher, but soon realized that there was a lot outside my classroom that was affecting what was happening inside. That’s why I’m running for a seat on the L.A. Unified School District Board.

At the end of my first year teaching at Markham Middle School in Watts, nearly 70 percent of teachers at the school—myself included—were laid-off as a result of budget cuts and a “Last In, First Out” policy. The next year, many students remained without a full-time teacher. One of them was my student, Concepcion, a straight-A seventh grader. When grades came due, Concepcion and her classmates had a substitute for history who had been in their classroom for just two days. Under pressure, the sub gave Cs to the entire class, regardless of the quality of their work. Overnight, Concepcion’s 4.0 was gone—not because she flunked a test, not because she didn’t study, but because the system failed her.

No straight-A student should ever get a C because the district couldn’t afford to teach her. LAUSD has responded to crisis after crisis by lowering standards, inflating graduation rates, and increasing bureaucracy. That’s not putting kids first. Not in Watts, not in the Palisades, not anywhere.

Our city is the creative capital of the world, and it's time we have a school district that befits the incredible talents of our students and families. I’m running for school board because as a teacher, attorney, organizer and advocate, I’ve seen what can happen when we put kids first. I’ve seen the innovation that’s possible in public education and think it’s past time we see it here in LA.

Superintendent Michelle King is in her thirteenth month in the district’s top job. On an A-F scale, how would you grade her first year? Please explain your answer.

I have a lot of confidence in Superintendent King and think that after five superintendents in the last eight years it’s important to have some stability. I don’t know that we have all the information necessary to evaluate her performance but, with the information we do have, I’d give her an “incomplete.” She is clearly extremely capable and I believe she could be an excellent superintendent, but the current board has done a poor job of outlining her role.

Take the recent back and forth between her strategic plan and the board's. A year in to her tenure, we should have clarity about who’s setting the vision and who’s executing and move past these initial goal-setting conversations. Superintendent King is the fifth superintendent in the past five years because of the inability of the board to provide the tools and vision needed to succeed. I have been impressed by the resounding support that Superintendent King has from parents that I have spoken to. By all accounts she is an excellent listener and is actively seeking feedback from families throughout the district. I hope to have a strong relationship with Superintendent King and collaborate to create a clear vision for the future of LAUSD.

Please name one idea or policy you don’t see Superintendent King, district leaders or the school board discussing often enough that — if elected — you’d work on either implementing or expanding in L.A. Unified?

We need greater school autonomy and flexibility. By that, I mean pushing as much decision-making authority as possible to the school site and letting principals and teachers do their jobs with fewer strings attached. The increase in autonomy and flexibility would extend to giving principals the ability to hire and fire their own staff. We are entrusting principals to run an entire school, and they should be able to do so with a staff of their choosing. I want there to be fewer decisions made at the district level and more made in local schools. This is one of the lessons we’re learning from charter and pilot schools; in general, decisions made closer to students and to a community are better.

The Downey Unified School District has a 96 percent graduation rate and has similar demographics to LAUSD. The success in Downey is attributable to a commitment to locally-based decision making, investing in teacher development, and increasing parent involvement. These policies have a proven record of success and with better leadership we can bring them to LAUSD.

Do you believe expanding “school choice” policies (giving parents more ability to choose the school their child attends) is a force for eliminating or exacerbating the educational opportunity gap between privileged and less-privileged racial, linguistic or socioeconomic groups? Please explain your rationale.

With roughly 130,000 students in charter schools and nearly 40,000 on waitlists, parents in L.A. are clearly hungry for an array of public school options. I support the right of parents to choose the best public option for their child. That being said, we need to make choices more accessible to all parents so that we don’t see choice exacerbate opportunity gaps; rather, these choices should help in eliminating them, which is what many of them are indeed doing in L.A.

To do that, I’ve advocated for a universal enrollment system for all public schools in our city. I want to make school choice more accessible to all families in LAUSD by creating a common application. The current process, whether it’s charter application windows and lotteries or the convoluted magnet point system, is difficult for many parents to navigate. A common application will increase the amount of choice parents and students have as well as make the process simpler and more equitable.

It is also my view that school choice coupled with more local control will allow students to find schools that better fit their needs. If a student has a passion for the arts, but their local school is not known for its art department and another school nearby has invested more in arts programs, we should not stand in the way of the student seeking out an alternative. Increasing school choice will give students a greater ability to find a school where they can succeed.

How, if at all, would you change L.A. Unified’s approach to “authorizing” and overseeing charter schools? (Your answer may touch on any facet of the relationship — from vetting applications to open new charter schools; renewing or revoking existing charters; monitoring charter schools’ performance, governance and finance; handling Prop. 39 campus-sharing arrangements.)

The board has an obligation to be transparent about its standards for granting new and renewed charter petitions, and this is not happening. It has, understandably, created some tension between LAUSD and charter operators. As a board member, I would work to be more forthcoming about LAUSD oversight and seek greater collaboration wherever possible in order to prevent this kind of mistrust from continuing. Ideally, the charter division would work with charters during the oversight process to mitigate problems as they arise. The goal should be to fix problems, not catch a charter doing something wrong to then shut it down.

I’d also like to undergo an honest accounting of district facilities and enrollment so all parties have equal access to information. The fact that some schools are given access to campuses but others are not is both unfair and creating tension within communities. In addition to this audit, I’d like to see LAUSD be more helpful with the conditional use permitting (CUP) process and other efforts through which charters try to secure private space.

We also need to work to fix the broken co-location process. One of the issues that frequently arises from co-located public and charter schools is that the rent is paid directly to the central bureaucracy so there is little to no incentive for public schools to share facilities with charters. I would support the cost of facilities going directly to the public school co-locating with the charter. We also need members of the board to stop pitting parents against parents with divisive rhetoric about charter schools versus district schools. With the facilities money going directly to the district school as well as a shift in rhetoric I believe that performance and collaboration would increase and friction would be reduced.

L.A. Unified faces long-term financial challenges, including declining enrollment and rising costs for pensions and employee benefits. A blue-ribbon panel in Nov. 2015 also highlighted further issues that cloud the district’s financial future. If elected, what immediate steps would you take to address these financial challenges?

If elected, I would focus on three main areas to address the budget challenges:

  1. Addressing waste
  2. Tackling underlying fiscal issues like the unfunded pension liability for long-term budget success
  3. Identifying and pursuing new revenue streams

The $13.5 billion unfunded pension liability is nothing short of a crisis. I will negotiate with the teachers union to stop the growth of the debt by implementing policies suggested by the Blue-Ribbon panel: paying teachers earlier in their careers rather than deferring benefits; offering lump sum payments rather than lifetime benefits; attempting to negotiate with UTLA to implement a 90-10 healthcare plan which would save the district $57 million per year on benefits.

To shore up the budget immediately, I will look to increase expectations for employee attendance and implement policies that increase both enrollment and student attendance. By being more transparent with district finances, we’ll also eliminate waste more effectively. We also may need to go to taxpayers with a parcel tax or advocate more aggressively for more state and federal funding, but all of that will fall on deaf ears if we’re not better stewards of the resources we currently have.

As a former union teacher, an attorney and parent advocate, I look at these issues from the eyes of students, teachers and parents alike. It is unconscionable that the current board has done so little to address such a serious matter.

The L.A. Unified board has set a district-wide goal of a 100 percent high school graduation rate. How, if at all, would you change the district’s approach to meeting this goal? (Or would you change the goal itself?)

While I understand that no board wants to see graduation rates decrease under their tenure, it is the quality of the education, not the quantity of diplomas that are given out, that is most important. If 100 percent of students graduate, but that diploma doesn’t entitle them to a seat at our state universities or isn’t meaningfully translating to a job, then we’ve failed those kids.

I’d rather see LAUSD commit to a goal such as “100 percent of students will finish their time with LAUSD prepared for college or a meaningful career with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century economy.”

Currently, only 28 percent of students district-wide are proficient in math, yet graduation rates are at an all-time high. That has parents scratching their heads.

Of course, I would like to see 100 percent of LAUSD students graduate high school with a C or above in their A-G requirements. But when it comes to a goal that is both meaningful and attainable, I’d rather focus on the quality of our instruction and education and not the watered-down accolades. All students who we educate in LA should go out into the world prepared for college, career and life.

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KPCC lightly edited all responding candidates' answers for spelling, grammar and style. KPCC is presenting candidates' answers in full, but does not vouch for the accuracy of any statements they make.

  • Can I vote in this election? It depends on where you live; each L.A. Unified School Board seat represents a specific geographic area, or "board district." This year, the seats in District Two, Four and Six are up for election. Plug in your address here to find out if you can vote. 
  • How can I register to vote? Here's a website where you can begin the registration process, and here's another website where you can check whether you're already registered.
  • How does this election work? This is a primary election. Voters select candidates from their own board district. If a candidate emerges with a majority of the vote on March 7, that candidate wins the seat. If no candidate wins a majority on March 7, the two candidates who received the most votes move on to a runoff election which will be held on May 16.
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