Fighting to keep his seat on the Los Angeles Unified school board, Steve Zimmer called the campaign finance arms race between union backers and charter school advocates “an obscene reality.”
“There are a lot of things we can do to help kids” with that amount of money, said Zimmer, who spent 17 years as a teacher and counselor in the district before his 2009 election to the school board. “What we should focus on is how to improve public education in Los Angeles to serve every child.”
Voters will decide school board seats in Districts 2, 4 and 6 in the March 7 election. District 6 is the only open seat, with six candidates running to replace Monica Ratliff, who is running for City Council.
No candidate in any of the three school board races has taken in more contributions than District 4 candidate Nick Melvoin, Zimmer’s opponent. Melvoin, a former LAUSD middle school teacher, has accumulated $296,948 as of Jan. 21, the most recent data available from the city’s Ethics Commission shows. Monica Garcia, the District 2 incumbent, is the only other candidate to exceed six figures in contributions ($163,693).
Melvoin’s haul, which has come in large parts from philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings and other charter advocate big and small, has propelled District 4’s total contributions to $531,146 among four candidates. Neither of the other two LAUSD school board races has surpassed $200,000.
Melvoin said he believes charter schools can be part of the solution to improving academics in the district. Zimmer, with $93,206 in campaign contributions, has the firm backing of the union, which points to the corruption scandals charter schools across the country have faced and wants to keep the status quo.
Despite his financial advantage, Melvoin said “campaign finance is beyond broken,” and “corrupted.” He added that his fundraising strategy was meant to help him “keep up with outside money,” since the race has also experienced an influx of independent expenditures.
Independent expenditures, which is money spent by organizations in either support or opposition of a campaign without being affiliated with any candidate’s campaign, involving the District 4 seat also dwarfs the two other races. More than $1.2 million has been spent in support of three of District 4’s candidates, compared to more than $1.4 million in opposition.
An organization called Students, Parents, and Educators in Support of Padilla and Zimmer for School Board 2017 spent $85,368 in opposition to Melvoin’s campaign. One of the organization’s web ads compares him to President Trump, even though Melvoin describes himself as a progressive democrat.
Another mailing criticized his campaign contributions from out of state, which total almost $60,000. Melvoin called it a “non-issue,” attributing the money in part to his network of friends and colleagues established while attending Harvard University as an undergraduate, followed by New York University School of Law.
“There’s enough indignation to go around, for sure,” Melvoin said of the misinformation outside groups have been spreading about many of the campaigns.
Zimmer has benefited from $781,599 in independent expenditures supporting his campaign, by far the most among all school board candidates. But he’s also had $1.3 million spent on mailers and TV ads in opposition to his campaign by the Encino-based L.A. Students for Change.
A third candidate in the District 4 race, Allison Holdorff Polhill, raised $78,766 in contributions and has the support of charter advocates.
“I wish all of these monies could go right into the classroom and help our kids,” said Polhill, who has been a member of the board of trustees at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades.
The $62,225 raised by Gregory Martayan, a Pepperdine University graduate who runs a communications and public relations firm, is the least among District 4 candidates. But his total would’ve been second-highest in the District 2 or 6 races. Martayan, originally from Hancock Park, said he is proud of his campaign for not taking out-of-state money, and hopes voters will appreciate his Los Angeles roots.
“I’m the only candidate who was born, raised, educated, married, worked and served to protect the people of the city without ever abandoning the city,” he said.
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