LAUSD board VP says there’s no secret plot to expand charters

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caitlin Plummer and Alex Tryggvadottir

LAUSD is facing scrutiny from teachers, the union, and the public as the strike continues into day three. Superintendent Austin Beutner has said the district will return to the table. But as student attendance drops during the strike, LAUSD is losing millions of dollars they could use to negotiate.

Nick Melvoin, Vice President of the LAUSD Board of Education, tells Press Play that he hopes to meet with the union again today, and was disappointed that the union walked away from the table on Friday.

However, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl told Press Play that Superintendent Austin Beutner was the one who didn’t show up.  

Melvoin says Beutner and the LAUSD board president were in Sacramento meeting with legislators and the new governor’s team to find more money to put on the table.  

Melvoin says he started his career as a teacher 10 years ago at LAUSD, where his classes were too large, and he faced layoffs because of budget cuts.

“We want this to be a state conversation, when 90 percent of our money comes from Sacramento. I think there needs to be a willingness to accept our financial reality,” he says.

There’s a huge disagreement on class sizes. LAUSD is offering to reduce the number to 39 students in high schools, but that would only be for a year.

Melvoin contends, “Classes across the board are too high. Actually we're the second lowest class size out of the top 10 largest districts in California.”

He points out section 1.5 of the contract -- which he mentions UTLA has agreed to -- that allows the district to increase class sizes in times of financial distress.

When asked what class size numbers would be acceptable in elementary and high schools, Melvoin says it depends on the subject and teacher.

“I think even 25-26 in the elementary classroom is too high. But it's a financial issue when the expense to the district of a teacher is $110,000. Now that is inclusive of benefits and pension. But it's a hundred million dollar issue,” he says. “So I look at some of the things that we're talking about, which are 27 [teachers for] pre-K through 3; and 34 for grades 4 to 5. And I say those aren’t ideal. But until we go from being the 44th out of 50 states in per student funding in California to near the top again, it's the best we're going to be able to do.”

The union is also suspicious that the board and superintendent ultimately want to privatize large parts of LAUSD, breaking it up into 32 smaller districts.

Melvoin says, “We hear a lot of talk about breaking up L.A. Unified. It is a district that stretches 720 square miles. I actually think we want a lot of the same things as the union, which is reducing the bureaucracy, putting more caring adults on campuses, putting more resources in schools, having community schools.”

He offers assurance that there is no secret plot to increase the number of charter schools. “Actually since I've been in office, we haven’t opened one new charter school in my district. I do believe that our nonprofit public charters in L.A. are helping us improve outcomes for kids. But I think we should be learning from them and improving our district schools, as opposed to just looking for new options all the time.”

The union wants a cap on new charter schools. Would Melvoin be willing to entertain that idea?

He says the charter authorizing law is at the state level.

He continues, “Down here, some of the things they're talking about like transparency and regulation, I wholeheartedly support. I think we have some of the best regulated charters in the state.”

On Tuesday, a poll was released showing 80 percent of L.A. County residents side with the striking teachers. So what does that mean for public support for the LAUSD board and whether or not Melvoin wants to seek re-election?

He responds, “I've been inspired as tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets to support our kids… I don't see this as a kind of good versus evil, as an us versus them. We're all on the side of kids.”

 He says both sides want the same thing, and just need to figure out how to pay for it.