Having presented the Los Angeles School Board election races as a referendum on Superintendent John Deasy’s future, the club of six- and seven-figure donors in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform may have succeeded in making Deasy’s life more complicated.
For the $3.6 million it spent, the Coalition did end up helping to elect one candidate it supported, Board President Monica Garcia. A second, Antonio Sanchez, is the leader heading into the runoff election later this month. But in the race into which it threw the most money, the Coalition failed to unseat incumbent Steve Zimmer. If a polarized election pushes Zimmer closer to those responsible for helping to get him re-elected – chiefly United Teachers Los Angeles – there may be more uncertainty and new challenges for Deasy.
Zimmer’s 4 percentage point victory over civil rights attorney Kate Anderson left Zimmer feeling “validated” to keep challenging Deasy on some of the superintendent’s priorities: teacher evaluations that use value-added student test scores, reform of the teacher seniority system and receptivity to charter schools and the “parent trigger” law of parent empowerment. Having survived an onslaught of what he dismissed as unfair and inaccurate mailers and ads, Zimmer said he’s “not about to break bread tomorrow with those who opposed me.”
“The lies and distortions backfired,” Zimmer said in an interview Wednesday, referring to two mailers in particular. One blamed him for budget cuts that led to “packing students in like sardines,” and another, “Waste King,” blamed him for extravagant spending for a new school six years before he was elected, he said. (Not to be outdone, UTLA, which spent $1 million on the election, also went negative with mailers against Anderson.)
“The Coalition became very brazen and willing to buy a board seat by any means necessary. Voters did not respond positively to that,” Zimmer said. “Even if voters disagreed with me, they could see I was trying the best I could to do right by kids in a budget crisis.”
The election in the nation’s second largest district drew national attention because it turned into a showdown between the teachers union and the Coalition’s funders – New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad and the California Charter Schools Association – with potentially the future of a hard-charging superintendent in the balance. Though Zimmer, a former LAUSD high school teacher and counselor, has mostly supported Deasy’s agenda, he opposed the use of Deasy’s method of using student test scores that take into account student demographics, called Academic Growth over Time, in teacher evaluations, and he proposed a moratorium, later withdrawn, on charter schools. With two and perhaps three members of the seven-member school board already in favor of firing Deasy, the Coalition viewed Zimmer as an unreliable swing vote, even though Zimmer has never called for Deasy’s ouster.
In the run-up to the election, Zimmer told the Los Angeles Times, “With a leader as powerful, urgent and brilliant as John Deasy, a moderating influence becomes more important. He could become a little bit dangerous in terms of any one person wielding that much power.” On Wednesday, he reiterated his commitment to work with Deasy. “I support and believe he is the best person to run the district, but I reserve the right to disagree with the superintendent,” he said. “A unilateral implementation of initiatives rarely produces actual changes kids need.”
Zimmer, never the UTLA’s favorite school board member before the Coalition set out to defeat him, said he would continue to be an independent voice on the board, “and move ahead guided by the same principles of solving some of the most vexing issues facing public education with solutions that are balanced, weighed and debated.”
That means working with UTLA while sometimes challenging its positions, he said. “What’s the alternative – hand-to-hand combat over every change we want to implement?”
“I want folks to come together around stabilizing funding for our schools,” he said. “We can disagree about ways to implement change and do accountability better, etc., but we must be willing to work together to end the (funding) crisis and not see crisis as an opportunity.”