LA School Board Election 2020 Candidate Q&A: Scott Schmerelson
Scott Schmerelson is a 69-year-old former Los Angeles Unified school principal. The Valley Glen resident has worked for four decades in the district until he toppled an incumbent in 2015 to win a seat on the L.A. Unified school board.
Now, Schmerelson is fighting to keep the LAUSD Board District 3 seat, which represents the West San Fernando Valley.
Both Schmerelson and his opponent, Marilyn Koziatek, recently sat for interviews with KPCC/LAist.
SUMMARY OF SCHMERELSON'S ANSWERS
Click on each section heading to jump to Schmerelson's full response.
- On Supt. Austin Beutner: Schmerelson was also troubled by some of the consultants Beutner hired early in his tenure, but says those concerns have lessened recently. Schmerelson praised the superintendent's pandemic response, while adding he has pushed Beutner to be more transparent with the board.
- On distance learning: Schmerelson is satisfied with the balance of live lessons with "asynchronous" instruction spelled out in the latest agreement with LAUSD's teachers union -- which he considers an improvement on last spring's sideletter.
- On reopening campuses: There are too many outstanding questions to consider reopening campuses now, in Schmerelson's view. He also suggested it's not clear the district has enough personnel to lead small group instruction for all truly needy students.
- On school police: Schmerelson voted against cutting funding for the L.A. School Police Department. As a former school principal, Schmerelson found officers were well-trained and restrained -- and says the department's role has become misunderstood.
- On LAUSD's funding formula: Schmelerson supports an LAUSD formula redistributing dollars to the neediest schools. He acknowledged the formula might mean some schools in his relatively-affluent board district might get somewhat less funding.
- On charter schools: Schmerelson worries about the effect of opening more new charter schools when so many LAUSD-run campuses and existing charters are not fully enrolled.
For more on this and other races on your ballot in Southern California, check out the Voter Game Plan from KPCC and LAist.
What follows is a transcript of an interview with Schmerelson, edited for length and clarity.
SUPERINTENDENT'S JOB PERFORMANCE
KYLE STOKES, KPCC/LAist: The most important job duty of a school board member is to hire, fire and evaluate a superintendent. How well do you think Austin Beutner is doing in the job?
Well, I never thought I would compliment him profusely on one of the things he has done -- and that is on his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
I have a habit of putting myself in the shoes of whoever I am evaluating and saying, how would I do that? What would I do? Is this going well? And as far as I'm concerned, his handling of the COVID-19 crisis -- with the testing, with the Grab-and-Go meals, with all the distribution of computers and hotspots for distance learning, helping connect people to the internet who never were able to have access before, making sure that all kids are learning.
In that regard, I have nothing but praise for him. But one of the important things that I have to remind him all the time that transparency and communication are very, very important to me.
He's been communicating pretty well about how we're handling COVID-19. But I want to know how much things are costing. I want to make sure that the companies being used are well-vetted; that nobody can ever look at the deals and say, you know, 'That's so-and-so's brother-in-law.' I want none of that kind of stuff -- and that's the only part that we're missing.
He's working on the transparency part, but I need to remind him all the time.
LAist: You voted against hiring Beutner. You also were among the board members most disturbed by how Beutner was hired. You even caused a kerfuffle when you disclosed that the board voted 4-3 behind closed doors to open contract talks to hire Austin Beutner (leading to a brief inquiry by the District Attorney's office into whether the disclosure was proper). Granted, you credit Beutner for his pandemic response -- has Beutner overcome your initial skepticism about whether he's the right guy for the job? Are his values in the right place?
Let's say that I believe that he has connected with very knowledgeable people about education, how a big district like LAUSD should run as far as pedagogy and instruction, and he has picked very good people to mirror his business abilities -- I'm not going to take that away from him for one second. More recently, he has been using people who, in my opinion, were excellent.
In the beginning, that did not happen -- I was getting so confused with Beutner because we were hiring all these people to check into special education and instruction. These were people who, when I read up on them, were not high-quality supporters of public education. I would ask him, 'Why are we paying so-and-so?' to consult on special ed or reorganizing the district.
He would always reply, 'Well, we're not paying anything for this; they're being paid through a grant.' Well, that's not enough for me. I'm glad that you were able to get a grant -- but I need more information about what these people are actually doing, because I would look them up on my own, and I wasn't pleased.
LAist: What was it that put up red flags for you about these hires?
One was a consultant hired to advise on special ed -- and special ed is my baby. The person that they hired was not successful in one of the East Coast cities. This person worked in reforming special ed in one of these cities -- and the job was not good. I was kind of surprised if that person was now in Los Angeles and doing that.
Then we had somebody who came to work with him from New Orleans. In New Orleans, the public school district has been replaced by mostly charter schools. This is a bad trail that I'm following here of people who were not successful, and people who didn't have the mindset of public education. That was concerning me.
But, we had our conversations. I will say, little by little, we were now dealing with people who are nationally recognized as public school advocates and also want the best for kids. I was pleased at that, but I didn't feel I had to be calling him on the carpet for everything.
LAist: On March 10, the board unanimously voted to delegate emergency powers to Superintendent Beutner. This gave him broad authority to enter fast-track, no-bid contracts to address LAUSD's coronavirus response -- and to do so without school board approval. We're going on seven months under this state of emergency. Is it time for the board to end these extraordinary powers?
I would say not to 'end,' but to modify. You're reading my mind -- I kind of resent that certain decisions are made without consulting the board for transparency's sake.
I once again told him recently, you're going to have to be more transparent with us on things that are happening with COVID-19 -- companies that you are using, the prices that we're going to pay.
I am not sorry that we granted immunity to him to do whatever he needed to do because we were in a crisis. Now, little by little, we're getting out of this crisis, so little by little, I would hope that he would loosen the reins and be willing to meet with us on a regular basis to discuss the Board of Education's involvement with future dealings with COVID-19 or anything else that has to do with a pedagogical view.
It's not good to give somebody full power like that -- except in an emergency.
LAist: You say, 'I hope he'll loosen the reins.' Couldn't you just take those reins back? Maybe you're not going to take away the powers, but is there a legislative step you need to take as a board to say, 'We do need to rethink the arrangement here'?
Nothing happens at the Board of Education unless you have four votes. He has some very fervent backers as board members. I'm not sure if these fervent backers of Mr. Beutner would be willing to sit down with all seven of us and discuss what powers we should slowly relinquish from him.
A wise and prudent person would say, 'Yes, we should discuss all these things,' including what powers we should loosen up. I hope that would happen. In fact, I did speak to a board member to suggest, 'Let's bring that up.' Let's talk about getting back more of our ability to be involved in what's happening.
LAist: As you know, going into this year, LAUSD's teachers union agreed that, in most grades, students will receive at least 90 minutes of live lessons per day. On most days, United Teachers Los Angeles also agreed their members will provide somewhere between 110 and 170 minutes of so-called "synchronous instruction." Is that the proper balance between live and not-live virtual instruction?
The balance that we have right now, I'm satisfied with. It's a very good attempt at having balanced instruction for the kids.
When we left in March, we thought we're coming back in two weeks. We just thought, 'Oh, well, we'll be back.' Well, we left in chaos. Many of the teachers were not familiar with this distance learning. "Synchronous" and "asynchronous" were two words I learned -- I'd never heard of those before!
In April, we agreed to a sideletter. But it really wasn't enough synchronous instruction. I didn't like the idea that students' grades were not allowed to drop below where they were when the lockdowns started -- I understand why, I understand that it wouldn't be fair in some cases. But in other cases it was a turnoff for the students. Many said, 'Why should I continue to pay attention and strive?'
So when the new sideletter agreement came out with that -- with a schedule, with taking attendance, making sure they had devices, times for synchronous and asynchronous instruction -- I was much happier with that.
LAist: There are some people who would criticize that balance. They'd argue we need a higher minimum bar for live minutes of instruction -- not necessarily for more Zoom calls, but to ensure that a teacher is going to be standing by to offer real-time feedback more than just two hours a day. What do you make of that?
When we go back to hybrid instruction, one of my proposals will be, we should have in-school instruction for classes that are generic to all the students in that school -- for example, English 1, English 2, U.S. History, World History.
That way they could be at the school and getting this face-to-face learning with the teacher at school and then go home and enroll in other subjects their school might not be able to offer due to low enrollment. Kids from all over LAUSD could tune in at the same time and have, for example, Advanced Physics, or Advanced Literature or Spanish 4. I think parents will be happy with that.
Jump to Schmerelson's answers on another issue:
LAist: L.A. County has seemingly ruled out hybrid learning reopenings until at least November. But dozens of L.A. County schools are inviting as much of 10% of their population back for limited, small-group instruction -- but Superintendent Beutner is not pursuing that right now, favoring one-on-one, by-appointment tutoring sessions for now. Is that appropriate? Or should LAUSD be pursuing small group instruction?
When you think about these small groups: who should be the first to come back? Let's say it's special ed. Should it be the special ed kids with the most severe needs first, rather than say, 'My child has an IEP (individualized education plan) for speech and language'? I would kind of think the child qualifying for speech and language would be towards the end of the line because that's the most mild form of special ed assistance. When you have kids that are intellectually developing or autistic -- those are the kids, in my opinion, who really should go back first to school.
You know, we're going to have to hire, like, a thousand more teachers if we're going to have these classes of 10 or 12 all over the city -- we're not going to have enough teachers for small classes all over. So we have to be very careful before we start sending kids back in small groups to make sure we can cover all of those classes that we have, plus the teachers who are teaching at home.
It's going to take a lot of consulting. That's another reason that we should be discussing this at the board with the superintendent and special education services.
LAist: Are you saying, 'These are concerns we have to work through' because you believe we need to reopen campuses soon? Or are you saying these concerns suggest LAUSD shouldn't pursue this for now?
I don't want to give you a canned answer, but I don't want to open schools until I can be sure that the county will say 'yes' -- that's number one.
Number two: We have to make sure that we have the proper cleaning at the schools. Right now, there's a kind of an ionized spray that they're using in each room. Our air conditioning units are running 24 hours a day -- not with the compressor on, only with the air -- with the best filters that can be bought. But do we have enough classified workers, cleaning workers at school all the time? Right now, elementary schools barely have one worker.
So you need to have more people at the school who are going to be constantly cleaning. They need sufficient cleaning supplies. It's a big job.
As soon as we can do that, I'm in favor of that. I'm in favor of the most needy special ed students coming in first. They're all deserving; however, the most severe special ed cases should be handled the first.
LAist: Over the summer, a divided school board voted 4-3 to cut the L.A. School Police Department budget by 35%, or $25 million. You were a passionate defender of the department, saying the cut was wrong. How do you respond to the students who came forward to say, 'School police make me feel unsafe'? And who don't understand why it's necessary for LAUSD to employ its own sworn force of officers in the first place?
In all my years as an educator, I never worked in an office, I was always at a school site. I have never seen an incident where school police were being abusive with any of the kids at school. In fact, they have such great restraint. I've seen where students will spit at the school officer when he stops them to ask them a question. This takes very good self-control to know these are kids and they don't mean what they're doing.
Our officers are trained so much. I wish we didn't call them "police." They employ counseling skills. They employ psychological skills. They're always there when kids are having psychological breakdowns.
Let me tell you something about school police at Mount Vernon Middle School. When I first came to Mount Vernon (which has since been renamed Johnnie Cochran Middle School) it was in serious trouble. When I got there, we were having 10 expulsions a year. By the end of my first year, we had zero. Now, I am not the miracle worker: We had a team. The school psychologist, the dean, and the school police were involved, too. We attacked situations where we used our skills to defuse situations.
So school police have been successful in not making kids afraid of them or feel uncomfortable -- I just haven't seen that happen. Our school police can always benefit from more training.
LAist: The advocates would point to statistics that say that L.A. School Police disproportionately arrested Black and Latino students from 2014 to 2017. In that period, 25% of the LAUSD students arrested were Black, even though they comprise only 8% of the district's population. We don't want students to be afraid of them, but advocates would say those statistics suggest some students have more reason to be afraid.
I accept that, I accept that. I'm just telling you from my personal experience, working with school police, working with our kids-- I've never seen where the kids were fearful when they saw the school police coming.
LAist: But how do we bridge that? You clearly see a role for school police. They don't. How would you envision a role for school police on campus when these groups simply don't trust them?
I am very much in favor of the restorative justice that we have instilled in LAUSD. We sit together, calmly and respectfully. I would hope that the school police would be part of one of these restorative justice circles so everyone could see that our police officer is a human being, has feelings and actually wants to help kids in the school.
I think they have a misnomer of their role.
Let me just say one thing about my school police officer that I did not have the skills to know. One day, the officer was talking to me in the main office. Someone came in, signed in respectfully and said they wanted to talk to a teacher. Well, my school police officer knew that this person had a police-style baton up the sleeve of his shirt -- and I didn't see that!
The officer was very nice: 'Excuse me, sir, what do you have up your sleeve?' I said, what is this about? The visitor replied, 'Oh, I use it for protection in the street because I'm afraid and I guess I forgot to take it out.' I don't know whether he was going to use it on somebody at school -- but these are the things that a school police officer with training sees and understands.
LAist: Is it awkward being the person who was endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles -- and to have UTLA being so opposed to school police?
No. I wish we would agree all the time, but we won't agree all the time. We both agree that we love kids and we want to educate kids. We want the best for kids. But I also want safety for kids.
That's how that was when I first came to Mount Vernon. They would never have back-to-school nights or an open house at night -- never. If they had an event, it would always be from noon to 3 p.m., because teachers were afraid to come here at night. I said, 'What are you talking about?' Parents live in this neighborhood -- and teachers are too afraid to come here at night? We changed that event to a normal time -- after dinner, 6 p.m. -- and we had over 1,000 people come into our school. People appreciate that.
I told the parents every single time, 'in my school, safety and achievement are on the same level for me.' If you don't have school safety, you cannot have achievement. Kids can't be afraid to come to school.
LAist: As you know, California already gives extra money to schools serving higher concentrations of high-need students. In recent years, board members have expanded the definition of high-need students to redistribute even more of that money to the very highest-need schools -- I'm referring to the Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) 2.0. Do you support the SENI index and the project of redistributing more money to the highest-need schools?
I do. The kids who need the most should get the most. And I am 100% in agreement with them.
Some of my schools are SENI 'recipients.' But there are schools, concentrations of schools in different parts of the city, who are much more needy than my schools -- and I don't begrudge them anything.
LAist: Just to translate some of that: schools in Board District 3 -- covering the relatively-affluent west San Fernando Valley -- are more likely to have money taken from them and redistributed among other schools, and you're totally okay with that?
I am the board member for Board District 3, but I worked all over the city. I know what kids need and the money should be directed to the kids who need it the most. I have no complaint with that.
LAist: The counterargument you occasionally hear is that there aren't that many 'low-need' schools that could stand to have less funding, and could easily give it up to help a needier school. How do you manage that tension? How do you keep a school that has 40% of its students on free and reduced-price lunch whole, when redistributing money to a needier campus?
I have some of the wealthier schools in the district. They have fantastic PTA's and booster clubs that raise lots of money for the schools. So I'm not worried about them too much.
I do have other schools, pockets of schools in BD3 that are extremely high poverty schools. And in my visits to those schools, I help them as much as I can with any board funds that I am given to assist schools with purchasing materials or equipment.
I have one school, an elementary school that is one of the poorest schools in BD3 -- I have been buying stage and audio-visual equipment for a program they've launched. I go see it in use and they're so appreciative and so grateful. I wish it was built into their regular funding stream, but I have no problem with spending my board funds on schools that have great needs, and that's how I do my part to help.
Jump to Schmerelson's answers on another issue:
LAist: California's charter school laws recently changed in a big way. AB 1505 makes it much easier to deny an application to open a new charter school -- but an existing charter school is supposed to have a much easier time staying open if they're doing well. This was forged in Sacramento as a compromise between the California Charter Schools Association and teachers unions -- but CCSA feels LAUSD has already overstepped in implementing the law. Do you think the new law strikes the right balance? And can LAUSD uphold it?
I do. We have certain board members who are very pro-charter school, that's fine. And we have some LAUSD board members who are very pro-public school.
I try to be fair. I have three of the largest charter schools in LAUSD in Board District 3. These three high schools -- Granada Hills, El Camino and Birmingham -- were fantastic, high-achieving schools before they became charters. They remain fantastic, high-achieving schools as charters. In general, I love charter schools -- that are fair, open and transparent.
But there are charter schools that are springing up all over the district that are being put in competition with each other and with the traditional public school. How is this new charter school going to be helping the neighborhood kids if 85% of the charter schools are not at capacity?
Some charter schools have closed because of lack of enrollment. So why keep shelling out this money for schools to open new schools or maintain schools with poor attendance when we should be putting our money into the schools that are being successful now, and the schools that really need the money? Money that could pay for wraparound services that our schools need?
An example: El Camino High School. A few years ago, that school was so mad at me. They were saying that I was trying to close that school to make it an LAUSD school -- I don't want it to be an LAUSD school. I'm happy that they're a charter school. But they had a lot of problems with being transparent and misusing money. We cleaned house -- and people were furious with me because they were fans of the old regime -- but the school is now doing great. Recently, El Camino was having a problem with its heating system, so I made sure that our facilities team went over there and repaired it.
I did have a great relationship with Granada Hills Charter High School until parents started writing to me and saying, 'I moved into the Granada Hills attendance zone and they won't let my child attend their regular academic programs.' (This was pre-COVID-19.) So they're mad at me.
I'm also the only board member who voted 'no' to allow Granada to create new elementary schools -- because every one of those schools that they were affecting are high-achieving schools in Board District 3. That expansion wasn't needed. Put charter schools with specialties in areas that they're really going to improve student achievement.
LAist: The whole point of charter schools is to create alternatives to the district-run system -- so, charter school advocates argue, why is every charter school's attempt to fulfill that purpose viewed only as part of a zero-sum game? They'd argue: a new charter just adds another good school to the neighborhood -- isn't that a good thing?
I don't think that charter schools should be opening in areas that would be a detriment to the existing public schools. By siphoning off funds from that school, the charter is going to eventually make that district-run school close.
LAist: Charter schools sharing LAUSD campuses continues to be a real pressure point in the relationship between charters and the district -- and it seems that everyone will have to live with them so long as the state law known as Prop 39 holds. Is there any way to resolve this problem? Or is there no way to turn down the temperature on this a little bit?
A lot of these problems have to do with parents getting along at these co-locations.
When you start dividing the school in half with an actual fence and having certain entrances for charter people and public people. That's not healthy.
When the kids see that and say, 'Are they better? Are they better than we are?' The 'us-and-them' dynamic is really hard to avoid in co-locations. You have to share time -- the bell schedule, the auditorium. It's not easy.
Charters are fine. But when you're co-located on the same campus with a traditional public school, it's bad news. The optics are bad.
But I do have one co-location that's great. I have one at Irwin Elementary called Ararat Charter School. It's an Armenian language charter school. They get along so great. I visit them when I come to school because I'm so pleased with them. I stop by and ask them what's happening -- because they are so open, they are so cooperative.
LAist: What goes well that you can replicate from that situation?
The principals work well together, there's none of this head butting, right. The coordinators of the charter school work very well with the coordinators of the traditional public schools. In both schools, there are sizable Armenian populations -- so they all get along because they have culture in common.
LAist: Why should District 3 voters choose you instead of Marilyn Koziatek?
You know how the real estate people say, 'Location, location, location.' Well, I'm going to say, 'experience, experience, experience.'
I understand what's going on in the district. I am not going to be a deer in the headlights going, 'Oh, my God, what is happening here?' Most of these things I've seen before -- and I know how to fix them. My experience and knowledge of working with people and understanding the educational system in LAUSD, makes me a champion for the kids.
I love special ed -- I know she does too. I take care of my special ed kids. I take care of my English-language learners.
I've worked in all kinds of schools. I work with schools that have lots of money and wealthy parents. And I work with schools who have no money and very poor parents. I know how to work with people to make sure that we get the best education no matter where they are -- in Board District 3 or not. I am the board member for all the kids in LAUSD.