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Fact-checking the most negative LA school board race in years

If you care about the impact of money in local politics in Los Angeles, here’s one candidate to watch closely in next week's primary election: L.A. Unified School Board president Steve Zimmer.

Since 2007, when L.A. voters decided to limit direct contributions to school board candidates, outside political groups purchasing their own election ads or consultants — "independent expenditures" — have come to dominate school board races in the nation's second-largest district.

Now, more of those expenditures are going negative than ever before: this year's $1.8 million in negative independent expenditures is a higher total than in any previous L.A. Unified race.

Nearly two-thirds of that money has been spent against Zimmer, who's running against three challengers for his seat in Board District Four.

In total, political relatives of the California Charter Schools Association, including the Parent Teacher Alliance and a group called L.A. Students for Change, have spent nearly $1.5 million to oppose Zimmer in the March 7 primary — more than any single candidate has ever faced against them since the contribution rules changed.

The pro-charter school groups have also spent just as much on ads supporting the two Zimmer challengers they endorsed, Nick Melvoin and Allison Holdorff Polhill.

Zimmer's allies in the city's teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, have rushed to his defense, spending more than $303,000 to oppose Melvoin and Holdorff Polhill.

A fourth candidate, Gregory Martayan, has said the influence of big money is "destroying grassroots efforts" in the race. Martayan has not been the victim or beneficiary of any independent expenditures.

The race has featured dozens of mailers, emails, canvassing stops and even a handful of video ads geared both for social media and for TV. We'll fact-check a few that have caused a stir:

Steve Zimmer's 2013 vote to support iPad purchases

A consistent theme of the charter school groups' ads opposing Zimmer was his 2013 vote in favor of then-Superintendent John Deasy's $1.3 billion plan to purchase an iPad for every L.A. Unified student. While many of the ads mention the controversy, this L.A. Students for Change television ad gives it top billing.

The software from publishing giant Pearson that came pre-loaded on the tablet computers was never fully functional and the district cancelled the program in 2014 over concerns the bidding process was unfair. Deasy ultimately resigned under pressure in part because of the initiative's failure.

Zimmer never "led the [iPad] effort," as the ad says — it was Deasy's brainchild — but Zimmer says he takes responsibility for his vote to launch the project.

The ads do not mention what happened next: When it became clear he was sold the initiative based on "lies" Deasy and other top officials told him, as Zimmer puts it, he voted to cancel the program and pushed to recoup from Apple and Pearson some of the money L.A. Unified spent on the tablets.

"[The ad] is unfair because everybody in this race would've made the same decisions with the facts that were in front of us," Zimmer says.

Charter groups have drawn connections between Zimmer and the iPad debacle in other ads, too, including a mailer fashioned resembling the title card of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer," except swapping out a prison mugshot in the original for a photo of Zimmer.

Opponent Nick Melvoin said the ads overstate Zimmer's importance to the program.

"Steve was a board member, Steve voted for it … so call him out on that," Melvoin said. "But to pin this all on him as the 'greatest scandal in LAUSD history is unfair."

'Hostile takeover': Melvoin & Holdorff Polhill's campaign funders

Nearly two years ago, a leaked draft document from the Broad Foundation suggested philanthropists and activists were preparing an effort to double the number of seats in L.A. charter schools. (Broad has since shifted its education strategy.)

At the time, Zimmer suggested the leaked draft was essentially calling for a "hostile takeover" of L.A. Unified. In an October 2015 op-ed for the education website The 74 Million, Melvoin wrote "a hostile takeover might be precisely what our district needs."

Melvoin now says he shouldn't have used the words "hostile takeover," saying he welcomes investment in L.A. Unified but doesn't necessarily support letting charters enroll half of L.A.'s K-12 students.

A political affiliate of United Teachers Los Angeles nonetheless seized on the quote in a Facebook ad. "In a world where billionaires get their way and for-profit schools divert funds from neighborhood public schools," the ad opens, with a depiction of downtown Los Angeles engulfed in flames in the background.

In context, "for-profit schools" is a reference to charter schools, which receive public funds, but are run by outside groups with appointed boards, not school districts with elected board members. Though California's charter law does not exclude for-profit companies from operating charters, non-profit organizations run most most charters in the state.

Melvoin says for-profit charter schools are "non-existent." One report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found they're at least rare in California, with schools run by for-profit "educational management organizations" accounting for just 2 percent of the state's charters.

But for charter school critics, privatization often refers to the larger idea that charter schools siphon money and resources away from traditional, district-run schools.

The ad also notes the support Melvoin and Holdorff Polhill have received from "a Trump-supporting billionaire" — likely a reference to former mayor Richard Riordan, who gave $1 million to L.A. Students for Change, the source of the bulk of the attacks on Zimmer. (Riordan told The Hill he was coming around to support Trump, but may only be a multimillionaire.)

Melvoin cites this ad as an example of how negative campaigning in the L.A. Unified race has gone both ways.

The 'fiscal mess' at L.A. Unified

Several charter-backed ads — including this television spot from L.A. Students for Change — say Zimmer laid off hundreds of teachers and played a direct role in adding administrative staff to the district's payroll.

In 2015, Zimmer did vote in favor of plans to lay off hundreds of teachers and non-teaching staff in an effort to close what was then estimated to be a $160 million budget gap.

L.A. Unified's count of non-school-based administrators has also increased from 785 two years ago to 905 last year. But Superintendent Michelle King explained during a school board retreat last May that the increase in administrative staff can be attributed to the district starting new initiatives and programs — all of which require central oversight. Zimmer has expressed openness to King's desire to "decentralize" the district, but has warned against slashing central office budgets in hopes of hitting arbitrary budget targets.

The deficit figure many charter-backed ads cite may be a little too high.

L.A. Unified officials did include the $1.4 million deficit figure in a December report on the district's finances. But citing that figure presumes the district hasn't found a way to settle a complex disagreement with the California Department of Education over how it accounted for its spending on high-needs students.

The district believes state officials will accept L.A. Unified's modified spending plan, leaving the district with a projected $529 million surplus in 2016-17. Three years out, however, district officials project a $252 million shortfall.

Nevertheless, Allison Holdorff Polhill has criticized L.A. Unified's current board and administration for not acting upon money-saving recommendations outlined by a blue ribbon panel in November 2015.

"We need to have the resources in the classroom," Holdorff Polhill said in a recent candidate forum.

Nick Melvoin 'abandoned' charter school students

An ad paid for by a United Teachers Los Angeles-backed group, "Students, Parents, and Educators in Support of Padilla and Zimmer for School Board 2017," claims school board candidate Nick Melvoin "did nothing" and "abandoned" more than 100 students who were left scrambling to find new schools when their charter high school shut down.
An ad paid for by a United Teachers Los Angeles-backed group, "Students, Parents, and Educators in Support of Padilla and Zimmer for School Board 2017," claims school board candidate Nick Melvoin "did nothing" and "abandoned" more than 100 students who were left scrambling to find new schools when their charter high school shut down.

In May 2016, shortly after announcing his candidacy for school board, Nick Melvoin stepped down from his position on the board of City Charter Schools, which at the time operated an elementary, middle and high school.

A little more than three months later, City's board decided to close the high school, which had struggled to hit its enrollment targets and find a suitable facility.

An ad from a UTLA-backed group nonetheless attempts to tie Melvoin to the decision, falsely stating that he is still on the board. It also says he "abandoned" City High School's students, who were left scrambling to find new schools, though he wasn't involved in the board's deliberations to close the school.

The ad is frustrating to many parents and staffers at City schools, who have filed a petition asking Zimmer to denounce the ad.

“Yeah, I want to dissociate myself from all negative campaigning in this election," Zimmer said in an interview. "I wish it weren’t happening.”

But he said questions about how Melvoin was involved at City Charter are not necessarily out-of-bounds. Zimmer drew distinctions between ads against him that had been too personal and ads against Melvoin and Holdorff Polhill that raise questions about their ties to pro-charter school money.

"I would say the City Charter association is the one hit, if you will," Zimmer said, "that has been made against one of my opponents that is actually about what they have done. Everything else that they have been hit with is about who's funding them."

All four candidates in L.A. Unified's District Four race completed KPCC's candidate survey. Read their responses here