As an elementary-school student, posing in his Westside home, he brandished his first sign of prescience: “You’ll get a kick out of Nick,” the decorated poster-board read. For most school-children, vying for a position on student government is a phase, where testing the proverbial political waters boils down to having the final word on the date of a school dance. But don’t be fooled, LAUSD School Board Member Nick Melvoin fixated his gaze on a far-flung and ambitious future.
Born and bred in the mosaic of L.A. neighborhoods collectively known as the “Westside,” a passion for public-service was imbued into his worldview from his toddler years by his parents. A graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Melvoin’s mother shattered the glass ceiling in Chicago’s newspaper market by becoming the first woman hired as a photographer circa 1973, before retiring from the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times around the time of Melvoin’s birth in 1985. Similar to how she leapt from reporting into the uber-creative domain of interior design, Melvoin’s father traded his role in the illustrious TIME Magazine for a gig as a television producer, a helm he sits astride to this day. Although success sprung from their own merits, Melvoin wants you to remember they are a “product of public schools.”
“That’s why I started at L.A. Unified,” Melvoin explains. The Board Member started his career as an educator at Markham Middle School in Watts, a relatively impoverished cross-section of Los Angeles County, where he taught English and advised students who staffed the school paper.
“I think they knew that I liked working with kids, and they knew that I was service-oriented. I think they were proud, and it’s kind of along the path of what they thought,” the Board Member says of his parent’s reaction to his academia-oriented career. In his green teenage years, Melvoin volunteered at Camp Harmony, a coastal oasis for homeless children. There he bore witness to the disproportional quality of childhood education in poverty-ridden areas.
While this catalyzed his trajectory in education, he’d also confront a challenge that would land him squarely outside his classroom’s walls: a “ground-breaking civil rights lawsuit” in which he successfully litigated that L.A. students were adversely affected by the seniority-based layoffs of teachers.
“Hey, you all were marching, honking, picketing, talking about this. We are all telling you we need this money.”LAUSD Board Member Nick Melvoin on Tuesday’s Closely-Watched Measure EE Election
In a span of a decade, Melvoin would wear the hats of teacher, attorney, member of President Barack Obama’s administration, and, as of 2017, the Vice President of LAUSD’s governing board.
In performing his duties as an elected official, Melvoin summons his time toiling away in the White House to conceive of the most optimal strategies of politicking.
“The power you have in government to make big decisions right off the bat is a pretty powerful one… Now that I’ve seen different levers, I look at the landscape and the chessboard, and I say, ‘If you want to make change, how do we do that’ And, litigation is a strategy.” Yes, this even means winking at the ACLU to file lawsuits, in order to broaden the “leverage” he maintains on a particular side of an issue.
“Very rarely in politics are there clear right and wrong answers, and I think [President Obama] was someone who could grapple with both sides of an issue…Even if I disagreed with him on a specific issue, that he’s weighed the pros and cons, and I can trust his judgement. I don’t think that’s true of the current administration, obviously,” Melvoin candidly stated.
Perhaps, his alluding to politics as an opaque business evinces the difficulty in enacting some of the most significant, albeit sensitive legislation.
Last February, for instance, a deranged student breached the security of a high school in Parkland, Florida, and sprayed bullets killing 17 people. In the wake of the carnage, he sponsored a resolution commissioning a School Safety Task Force designed to “review, evaluate, and improve the effectiveness of District-wide strategy, safety, and security plans…” He won’t be the first to tell you that leveling a defensive front against unhinged individuals isn’t as simple as one would believe.
“I was hearing from parents who said we need to have armed guards at every school… and, then, on the other side, I was hearing from parents who said I don’t want my 7-year-old to have an active shooter drill,” Melvoin outlined the conundrum.
To hit the nail on the head, LAUSD is examining a novel position of “School Safety Czar,” aiming to become more transparent with safety drills. Additionally, Melvoin is interested in terminating LAUSD’s random searches of students; support on the board, however, hasn’t surpassed the necessary threshold to enact his idea. With this in mind, he contextualizes his overall odyssey as legislator, saying “There are very few black and white answers.”
One piece of legislation he does not perceive in the aforementioned light, however, is Measure EE, a parcel tax that seeks to generate $500 million dollars annually for 12-years’ time and tackle a myriad of the district’s sore spots. While virtually everyone who’s everyone in the educational sphere has jumped on the bandwagon attempting to attract and retain teachers, cut class sizes, and hire more support staff, a swath of his constituents are on the fence. Those scrutinizing the tax argue that corporate landlords would increase the rent on their tenants, disemboweling the District’s legislative intent, vis-à-vis a trickle-down effect.
“It’s an imperfect mechanism to raise funds…90 percent of our money comes from Sacramento. We need to call on our state legislators to increase money for schools. We also need to call on Washington to increase funding for schools. They have not acted.”
“Have you been in active talks with California legislators on allocating more money?” I ask.
“On the way over here, I was on the phone with Senator Ben Allen about our legislative priorities and money for schools,” he divulges.
Asserting a “progressive tax” is his preferred route, he explains “About 99 percent of these measures are a flat tax…So, we’re doing one based on square footage. It completely shifts the burden – 80 percent of which was on homeowners, now of it is on businesses.” The latter provision has lured the ire of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
“Hey, you all were marching, honking, picketing, talking about this. We are all telling you we need this money.”
To one faction of the opposition, telling is the operative word. A number of days ago, the Los Angeles Daily News’ Editorial Board took a swipe at District brass with an article entitled, “LAUSD’s Measure EE Outreach Blurs the Lines Between Information and Advocacy.” In sum, it contends that LAUSD’s marketing campaign, made conspicuous through a proliferation of banners hung on school fencing, is “questionable.” In response, the Board Member points to other government agencies appearing to issue endorsements, contending law governing these actions is murky.
Apart from this, Melvoin is also disillusioned by the Teachers’ Union bargaining tactics, particularly the narrative they are hinging on. “This is one of the things that may lead the measure to not passing…One of their messages was the District has all this money it’s not spending. And, our message was, “No, no, no, we’re spending it, we’re just spending it over three years…Now, if you look at the Teachers’ Union’s messaging it says, ‘The reserve were one-time funds that are already allocating and we need this money.’ Part of me was frustrated because that’s what we were saying for months.”
Extolling the virtues and recognizing the downsides of the bill, the Board Member is not fully confident of this measure’s passage. “You know, polling is like low 60’s and it has to be high 60’s. What we see every week since the strike public support dissipates…It’s much easier to honk at a teacher, than it is to pay for a teacher.”
Wrapping our conversation, I enlisted advice the Board Member once gave to a high school audience. “College will open doors, but you must walk through them yourself. What’s the next door you’re walking through?”
“Literally, it’s going to be into meet my friend who’s a local judge.” As we parted, he injected humor into his answer, graciously explaining that he’s not going anywhere. In his eyes, the most critical of issues still await.
Editor’s Note: L.A. Voters are slated to head to the ballot box to make their decision on the passage of Measure EE this Tuesday, June 4, 2019.
Update: Measure EE, the parcel tax estimated to have annually funneled $500M to LAUSD’s most impacted areas, was rejected by L.A.’s electorate on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in an immense set-back to those who championed its capabilities, such as Board Member Nick Melvoin. The VP of the 2nd-largest school district released a statement on Wednesday that partially read, “Yesterday, voters — an unfortunately small number of them given low turnout — rejected [the] effort…It is also [sic] incumbent on this coalition to learn the lessons from yesterday’s defeat — most notably that voters believe LA Unified needs to do more to reform and improve outcomes for kids in addition to seeking increased investment.” The initiative required a two-thirds majority to pass.