The Los Angeles Unified school board District 4 race features incumbent Nick Melvoin, who supports the district’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for staff and students, and two challengers who oppose requiring people to get the shots.
Board Vice President Melvoin, seeking his second term, is up against Gentille Barkhordarian, a mother of two frustrated over some of the school district’s pandemic responses, and Tracey Schroeder, a teacher forced to teach online after not complying with a vaccine mandate for district employees .
They’re each hoping voters will support them in the June 7 primary election to represent District 4, which covers West LA and parts of West San Fernando Valley.
We asked the candidates to share their views on the vaccine mandates and other key issues.
Although Melvoin, along with his six fellow board members, voted to postpone the district’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students at least until July 2023 to align with the state’s vaccine timeline, he still supports the mandate overall.
“My north star is to keep kids and teachers safely in the classroom, and I will follow the science and recommendations from the prevailing health departments to ensure this is possible,” he said. “We know that the vaccines are safe, effective and help keep kids and adults on campus.”
But Barkhordarian said the COVID-19 vaccine hasn’t been tested over time as thoroughly as other childhood vaccines, and that receiving the shot should be a personal choice.
“The decision to get vaccinated should be made by staff, and parents for their minor children, on a case-by-case basis, based on a benefits-versus-risks analysis for their particular health status,” she stated.
Schroeder is advocating that religious, medical and personal belief exemptions be offered to all employees and students. If elected, she said, she would work to reinstate workers and others barred from the district’s campuses.
“While I support maintaining a safe and healthy environment on LAUSD campuses, I do not support LAUSD’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees or students as currently applied,” she stated. “It has contributed to staffing shortages and enrollment decline.”
Last year, the school board planned to hire additional teachers, counselors, nurses and others as part of a COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan. But a labor shortage left thousands of positions unfilled.
Until the district can hire more people, Schroeder said LAUSD should train existing teachers and counselors to provide support services to students, and repeat its staff vaccination mandate.
Last fall, the district reassigned or placed on leave unvaccinated employees and, in December, fired hundreds of workers for failing to comply with the mandates. Recently, new Superintendent Alberto Carvalho deployed non-classroom employees in classrooms to fill teacher vacancies.
“Since October, the school board has been crying out about being short-staffed. Nevertheless, they fired good people,” said Schroeder, who also proposed that the district offer an attractive salary and benefits package and provide mentorship to attract and retain workers.
Barkhordarian also proposed bringing back workers who were reassigned, placed on leave or fired due to the vaccine mandate. She also proposed giving teachers raises based on longevity and merit, and using some of the money being spent on COVID-19 testing, masks and other pandemic-related measures to attract and retain new hires.
Additionally, Barkhordarian proposed holding workshops to train parents on how to tutor their children and said she would encourage parents to volunteer as online tutors in their children’s classrooms.
Melvoin proposed offering a higher base salary for new hires while trimming back on retirement or health benefits – for example, switching from a pension to a 401(k) plan, or re-examining the practice of providing lifetime health benefits to longtime employees. Today’s new hires may prefer a higher base salary, Melvoin said, as it would address immediate needs due to LA’s high cost of living.
He also proposed extra pay for teachers with specialized skills or teacher-leaders with additional responsibilities, as well as offering employee housing to attract and retain top-notch employees. He also supports developing career pathways for students to earn credentials to qualify them to work in the district.
In the meantime, to deal with the immediate need to provide mental health services to students, Melvoin suggested partnering with community health care providers.
Declining student enrollment
LAUSD enrollment has dropped nearly 12% over five years due to declining birth rates, families moving to more affordable areas and competition from charter or private schools.
Barkhordarian attributes more recent declines to the district’s prolonged school closures during the pandemic while private schools or schools in other states reopened, and other strict health protocols related to COVID-19.
She also cited controversy over whether to discuss gender fluidity, despite some parents’ feelings that the topic is inappropriate for elementary-aged children.
“Before we can focus on growing enrollment, we must identify the reasons that families are fleeing the district,” Barkhordarian said. “We need a … community where parents feel like they have a say in their children’s education. … Parents want a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about their children. If we do not address this, programs to increase enrollment will not be successful.”
To attract families to LAUSD, Schroeder suggests letting schools have more say over where to direct money and resources to meet needs in every neighborhood. She supports more community schools that provide “wrap-around” services such as health clinics, nutrition classes and resources for families, as well as magnet schools and similar programs to increase enrollment.
Melvoin, meanwhile, feels the district must do a better job of marketing its schools, invest in traditional neighborhood schools and expand popular offerings such as dual-language immersion programs.
In June 2020, amid a nationwide call for police reform, the LAUSD school board slashed about a third of its police department’s budget and moved school officers off campuses at the urging of activists who said many Black and Latino students felt criminalized.
There are ongoing debates about whether officers should be on campuses – or, at least, whether principals should have the ability to request an officer for their school. Already this school year, incidents such as an alleged sexual assault, stabbing, nearby shooting and fights have been reported on or near campuses.
Melvoin, who voted to cut the department’s budget and to move officers off campus, said student behavioral issues should be handled by counselors while officers should focus on threats off campus. Melvoin says district data suggests that suicidal thoughts and mental health issues have increased since the pandemic, but more violent incidents haven’t grown much since officers were relocated.
“Campus safety is vitally important to ensuring positive learning environments for students and teachers alike,” Melvoin said. “I believe the focus, however, should be placed on protecting kids from external threats to schools and not policing behavior in schools.”
The other candidates believe officers should be allowed back on campuses.
Schroeder said schools should be free to decide, noting that at their old school officers are “generally welcomed.” She acknowledged some communities may not want an officer and said the department should try to improve its relationship with students. Programs like DARE, a drug prevention program, could help, she said.
Barkhordarian claims there’s been a rise in incidents since the department underwent cuts and officers were reduced. Some students and staff have complained about feeling unsafe, she said.
Endorsements and fundraising
Melvoin is the only candidate to list endorsements on his website. He’s endorsed by Service Employees International Union Local 99, as well as other unions, including the union representing LAUSD school administrators and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He’s also endorsed by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, LA City Council member Bob Blumenfield and several state lawmakers.
Through April 23, Melvoin had raised more than $479,500 and had over $314,500 left after expenses, according to finance statements filed with the city’s Ethics Commission.
Neither of his challengers reported raising money up to that point. Barkhordarian vowed not to accept campaign donations from special interest groups.
Outside groups have spent more than $1 million in independent expenditures to support Melvoin’s candidacy. The bulk of it has come from an education reform group known as Kids First, and SEIU Local 99’s political action committee spent more than $35,300.
CANDIDATES AT A GLANCE
Barkhordarian, 56, has lived in District 4 for more than three decades, including the last 20 years in Century City. Her two elementary-aged children attend Warner Avenue School.
Occupation: Engineer/IT consultant
Background: She noted that none of the current board members have children in K-12 schools and is pushing for parents to have a say in district negotiations with unions. She has an MBA in finance and information systems from the University of Southern California.
priorities: Give parents a seat at the negotiating table; restore a sense of normalcy with “student-centered decision making” and by addressing students’ mental health; and address pandemic-related learning losses.
* * * * * * * * * *
Melvoin, 36, was born and raised in District 4. He grew up in Brentwood but now lives in Hancock Park.
Occupation: LAUSD school board vice president (elected to board in 2017)
Background: Melvoin taught at Markham Middle School in South LA and worked for nonprofits such as Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence. He has a master’s degree in urban education from Loyola Marymount University and a law degree from New York University. During his first term, Melvoin said, he advocated to invest $700 million to support underserved students through an equity-needs index and to decentralize LAUSD by breaking it down into 44 communities of schools, akin to mini-districts.
priorities: Adopt a four-year strategic plan for the district; provide tutoring or summer school to help with students’ academic and social-emotional recovery due to the pandemic; and further decentralize LAUSD by vesting more decision-making authority, including budgets, to Communities of Schools.
* * * * * * * * * *
Schroeder, 48, has lived in District 4 for about 20 years and currently lives in Tarzana.
Occupation: Teacher in LA Unified for 24 years.
Background: Schroeder taught at Hesby Oaks Leadership Charter School until last fall, when she, along with other teachers who had not complied with the district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for staff, was reassigned to teach online. She received her master’s degree in psychology, specializing in art therapy, from Phillips Graduate Institute.
priorities: Be accountable by holding school board meetings at more convenient times for the public and by being fiscally responsible; focus on standards-based learning and proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics; and use common sense by empowering schools to have more autonomy in deciding how to spend their money.