And Challenges of Working in a Large Bureaucracy
LAUSD Board Member Nick Melvoin, who represents Pacific Palisades schools, gave a brief but candid presentation to members of the Palisades Rotary Club on September 5 at the Aldersgate Retreat Center.
He first provided some personal background, including an amusing story about when he was growing up in Brentwood and attended Cotillion at the Palisades Woman’s Club. On one occasion, his mother was unable to attend, so for the mother/son dance, he had a stand-in mom, Candice Bergen. “I have a trophy from winning the fox trot with ‘Murphy Brown,’” he said.
Melvoin, who attended Harvard-Westlake, has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard (2008) and a master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University.
After graduation from Harvard, he joined the Teach for America program and worked as an English teacher at Markham Middle School (Watts). However, he and two-thirds of Markham’s teachers lost their jobs in 2009, due to budget cuts. Melvoin joined with the ACLU and Mayors Riordan and Villaraigosa to fight seniority-based teacher layoffs (Reed v. California), arguing the system hurt students in the poorest schools.
He said they won the case in 2011, when a ruling by an L.A. County Superior Court Judge ended seniority-based layoffs in 45 low-performing schools. Melvoin then attended New York University School of Law as a Root-Tilden-Kern Public Service Scholar.
Elected to the L.A. school board in 2017, Melvoin began the challenge of confronting a school district with close to 700,000 students, including 40,000 adults and 150,000 in charter schools.
The challenges include managing a business (LAUSD) that is the largest employer in L.A. “How do we run this huge bureaucracy?” he asked rhetorically, noting that 30 percent of the district’s $7.8 billion budget goes to insurance and pensions.
He also asked, “How can we run a greener school district?” He noted one step: the district is looking at electric buses. Yet another question was, “How do we make sure we have less food waste?”
Melvoin noted that about 17,000 LAUSD students are considered homeless—but that means they don’t have a permanent address: they could be staying with aunts or uncles or in hotels.
“The highest number of students listed as homeless [in this district] are at University High,” he said.
One ongoing challenge for LAUSD is that a high percentage of its students are low-income. Melvoin noted that in addition to serving breakfast and lunch, some schools are even serving dinner.
Supporting the 150 schools in his District 4 includes looking at security and how to make the best use of the school campuses. For example, although people have come back to local schools in Pacific Palisades and there is a waiting list, Brentwood Science Magnet is underutilized by the community. Does LAUSD turn it into a language immersion school? Or expand it to middle or high school to complement the two that are in the Palisades?
Melvoin then took tough questions from the audience.
One member admitted he had not voted for Measure EE (school parcel tax) in the June election because there is no computerized accounting system. The man felt there was no way to track if LAUSD would be accountable with the money.
“We’re building it [computer program],” Melvoin said. “No one knows where our money is going. We need to spend our money better.”
Another person asked that if the citizenship question somehow goes on the census, how would it affect LAUSD.
“Ten percent of our money comes from the Federal government,” Melvoin said. “Our fear is that we will have a severe undercounting, which means less funds.”
“What about the exemptions regarding immunizations?” another member asked.
“Close them,” said Melvoin, who pointed out that the highest rates of the unvaccinated are on the Westside.
Then he was asked about ineffective teachers. “The single biggest factor in a student’s success in exiting poverty is having good teachers and receiving an education,” the person said. “What is the district doing to eliminate bad teachers?”
“The average cost to remove a bad teacher is $230,000,” Melvoin said, and it’s not an easy procedure. “We are paying 434 teachers a salary right now because it’s better than having a bad teacher in the classroom.”
Principals cannot routinely dismiss a bad teacher. They have to document bad teachers, but don’t always have time. LAUSD is now deploying a team that can go to different schools and start a paper trail, which may eventually result in the removal of a teacher.
“A teacher has lifetime protection in a job after 18 months,” Melvoin said, asking how many people in different jobs would have that kind of guarantee.
According to a July 2018 LAUSD newsletter story (“An End to ‘Must-place’ Teachers in LAUSD? Almost?”), Melvoin told the reporter, “If nothing else, with the District in its current financial crisis, we shouldn’t be spending millions of dollars a year on this group.”
LAUSD then passed a resolution about “must-place” teachers, and explained, “Los Angeles’ mutual consent hiring policy requires both teacher and school to agree to a teacher’s placement. This means the districts can no longer place teachers unilaterally or require schools to select from the displaced pool rather than making new hires. As of right now, the policy only covers one quarter of LAUSD schools. The remaining three quarters are still obligated to fill vacancies with displaced teachers, a group which includes those who have been unplaced for more than a year (commonly referred to as the ‘must-place’ teachers).”
Melvoin said in that story, “If you haven’t been rehired in a year, you should exit the district. The vast majority of our teachers are incredible and hardworking, and I want them to stay. I think we do that by treating them respectfully and like professionals. No professional should work where they don’t want to, and no school community should have to hire someone that they’re not excited about.”
Then in February 2019, the composition of the LAUSD board changed, with only Melvoin and Board Member Kelly Gonez voting not to put “must-place” teachers in the remaining LAUSD schools, but the board sided with the teachers’ union. (Board members include George McKenna, Scott Schmerelson, Jackie Goldberg, Monica Garcia and Richard Vladovic.)
In a Speak Up story that same month (“LAUSD Says Schools and Students Are Stuck with Ineffective Teachers”), it reported that a question of cost was raised as a reason for not doing it.
The article quoted Melvoin saying, “There is a cost to not doing this. And it is a cost that’s borne by students, and by our employees and by our families.”
The writer continued, “Melvoin also asked the audience to question why there would be a cost to not hiring a teacher at a school. ‘That is a contractual issue. It is a state law issue, and it’s one that this board alone cannot solve,’ he said. ‘But I hope that everyone who is listening to this conversation is scratching their heads saying, ‘wait, if a teacher doesn’t want to go to a school and a school doesn’t want a teacher, it costs the district potentially hundreds of millions of dollars?’”
According to The Urban Institute (“Transitioning In and Out of Poverty”), “Increases in educational attainment, such as completing a high school or postsecondary degree, have a large association with poverty exits, as do shifts from female-headed to two-parent household.”
The students are the ones who suffer when there is a bad teacher in their classroom. “Great teachers are the solution,” Melvoin told the Rotary audience.
Unanswered questions are: Why does the teachers union support bad teachers? and why are board members controlled by the teachers union, rather than representing students?