It’s been dark for almost five hours, the city has slowed, and even the 101 Freeway is sparse and quiet. Steve Zimmer has just wrapped his last appointment, but rushing home seems foolish when a rare sit-down dinner is an option. Most days Zimmer hardly notices how alone he is, because he never stops working.
On this wintry night earlier this year, the then-18-month veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education is coming off a 14-hour day, a zigzag tour of schools from West Hollywood to the Elysian Valley, from parent meetings on the Westside to policy meetings downtown, home to Hollywood to walk his blind Chihuahua-pug mix and is about to wind down — finally — with dinner and a very necessary nightcap in Echo Park. By this point, Zimmer is hungry, tired and melancholy, so once he’s decided upon the kitschy French bistro Taix on Sunset Boulvard, he pops in a Leonard Cohen CD and sinks into the driver’s seat of his LAUSD-owned Prius.
“So you know that everybody covers ‘Hallelujah,’ but this version, this live version is just … unbelievable,” he says. “The instrumentation is very different than his studio albums. I didn’t realize how Jewish-influenced his music was until I heard this. It almost has a klezmer-y feel.”
Zimmer moves to another favorite, Beck, whose album “Sea Change” he calls “the breakup album.” “It rips your heart out,” he says, explaining that he listened to it on loop for months after a six-year relationship ended recently. At 41, he has never married, but he says his last breakup felt like a divorce.
“I’ve been good — or at least passable — at a lot of things in my life,” Zimmer tells me. “I haven’t been as good at relationships. An artist can’t help being an artist — in the same sense that I can’t help what I do. It’s a focus thing.
“I don’t know how to do things any other way. It’s a complicated balancing act to have two passions. It takes a very, very special person to be willing to be part of a balancing act.”
But if Zimmer thinks his schedule reflects any sort of work/life balance whatsoever, he’s either incredibly un-self-aware or in denial. Most days he’s so entrenched — between developing and arguing policy downtown and visiting with parents, students and administrators at any of the 99 school sites in his district, which runs from East Hollywood to the ocean, north to the Valley and south to Westchester (“It’s f—-ing enormous!”) — there really is no distinction between Zimmer’s work life and personal life. Given the constant state of crisis in today’s public schools, every school board member must take the job seriously, but, for Zimmer, it is an up-all-night, high-octane, high-stress, the-world-rests-on-your-shoulders kind of job. He gives it everything, with a self-sacrifice that borders on masochism.
You might call Zimmer a modern-day Don Quixote, a man on a deeply personal but quite possibly futile quest to revitalize public education during one of the most fraught periods in American schools’ history — and in a landscape packed with counter forces so dizzying it makes La Mancha look like a playground. Is he mad? Maybe. And yet, there can be reason in madness. Zimmer is the kind of hero you want to see succeed — affable, passionate, intense and charismatic — and he approaches almost everything except politics with romantic brio.
Like any good literary character, Zimmer faces tough obstacles and has some tragic flaws. He took a huge pay cut to sit on the board full time, leaving his $90,000-per-year teacher’s salary for an annual income of about $50,000. “I don’t say this lightly, but financially, this has ruined me,” he says.
The parallel between his life and the central dilemma facing LAUSD is striking: Just a few months ago, due to California’s budget crisis, LAUSD faced a $408 million deficit for the 2011-2012 school year, effectively threatening the jobs of about 4,000 teachers, and, as a result, the education of approximately 640,000 students.
The crisis was mitigated in late June when LAUSD passed a budget combining state revenues, givebacks from the unions and from the California Workers’ Compensation reserve, as well as a one-time stimulus from the federal government’s Education Jobs Bill. But even that wasn’t enough; this month, 3,000 LAUSD employees face layoffs, though a pending labor deal with the unions mandating furlough days may prove a saving grace for at least half of those jobs.
Zimmer is part of a board trying to steer a ship under siege and, every day, has to contend with numerous angry forces. But, for Zimmer, that seems to fade into the background when he’s face to face with the city’s most vulnerable. He is known for his devotion to at-risk students, the impoverished and gang-prone, those most susceptible to drug addictions or lives of crime.
His altruistic spirit, while admirable, has also earned him criticism; he’s been accused of putting the needs of his Eastside constituents before the concerns of his more affluent constituents on the Westside. Indeed, dividing his focus is a struggle both internally and externally, but Zimmer maintains that his bottom line is to ensure equal opportunities for all students, irrespective of where they land on the socioeconomic continuum.
To bridge the education gap between the haves and the have-nots, he says, is “the civil-rights struggle of our day.”
At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, Zimmer picks me up 20 minutes late for a parent meeting at Rosewood Elementary School, where he’ll discuss the district’s plans to build a new middle school in West Hollywood (currently, the closest option is in Hollywood, a long commute for parents). Zimmer wears a suit that looks a little baggy on his medium build, the business attire an odd contrast with his laid-back style. He has beady but piercing blue eyes and is markedly bald in front; a perpetually furrowed brow gives him a scowling look.
“So, this is a train wreck of lateness this morning,” he apologizes before adjusting his tie and checking his BlackBerry. “But there will be food and coffee.”
Before he was elected to a three-year term on the board in 2009, Zimmer taught for 17 years. He came to Los Angeles as a Teach for America trainee in 1992, and, by fall, was placed at John Marshall High School teaching English as a second language. Marshall transformed Zimmer; the Los Feliz school is a Title I school, with nearly 70 percent of students qualifying for the free or reduced-fee lunch program. At Marshall, he realized his students needed more than what the classroom offered, so he created an intervention-counseling program and became a community activist, campaigning for immigrant rights and bilingual education. Public education, he came to believe, is the best and only hope for creating stability in marginalized communities.
At West Hollywood’s Rosewood, 25 parents have gathered inside a small auditorium for a meeting about a new middle school added onto the nearby Laurel Elementary School campus last fall. “We want middle school to be something you’re excited about, not something you’re scared of,” Zimmer says to mild chuckles. Laurel opened to sixth-graders in fall 2010; 160 students are registered for grades 6-8 for the coming school year.
“You get to have a major role in how this school is shaped. You get to build it,” he tells them. When he’s done with his shpiel, parents ask about class size, curriculum and what the cafeteria will serve. Zimmer doesn’t have all the answers but tells them classes will start small. “I wouldn’t be broadcasting this out,” he warns.
“And the new superintendent is on board with this?” one woman asks, referring to John Deasy, who would take over for LAUSD’s veteran innovator Ramon Cortines in April 2011.
“He will be,” Zimmer says with surprising confidence for someone who was the sole board member to oppose Deasy’s confirmation as superintendent last January. “He should be,” Zimmer corrects himself, “because if we do this right, we’re going to retain the ADA [average daily attendance] of the middle-school students we’ve been losing to charters for years.”
Before Zimmer helped open the new middle school, only 11 students from the greater West Hollywood area attended an LAUSD middle school. The resulting loss in funds to the district was enormous because LAUSD receives approximately $5,800 from the state per student enrolled. Next calendar year, Zimmer estimates the district will have lost 83,000 students to charter schools. Do the math, and the total losses amount to more than $480 million, a substantially larger sum than LAUSD’s total deficit.
At a town hall meeting at Walgrove Elementary in Venice in June, Zimmer found himself in the awkward position of defending district plans to parcel out Walgrove land to a charter school (LAUSD is required by law to provide space for charters). The meeting was attended by Tanya Anton, author of “GoMamaGuide,” a detailed guidebook to Los Angeles schools. Anton makes a living advising families about their public school options. In the last election, she supported Zimmer’s opponent, Mike Stryer, a business executive-turned-Fairfax High School teacher, but she said she is heartened by Zimmer’s willingness to engage in dialogue.
“My issue with Steve is that I feel he’s conflicted, because he was paid for by UTLA money,” Anton said, referring to the teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which donated an estimated $300,000 to Zimmer’s 2008 campaign. “I just don’t know how effective he can be. I see his passion. I honor his commitment to the disenfranchised. I just don’t know if he can take care of business and get things done.”
Because he is a former teacher, Zimmer’s allegiance to unions is philosophical and fundamental; he believes public workers’ rights should be protected. But Zimmer’s union association has also become an image problem as one of public education’s fiercest current battles pits a civic-led reform movement against teachers’ unions. Fed up with dismal graduation rates and low test scores — in LAUSD, approximately 50 percent of students graduate high school, and only about 10 percent go on to college — teachers’ unions have come to represent what many believe is an intolerable status quo, one that protects poorly performing teachers. The notion that if students are failing, bad teachers are to blame, has been reinforced in mainstream culture by popular polemics such as Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
The assumption that Zimmer parrots union party line is problematic, but it’s also not entirely true. In fact, Zimmer nearly derailed his union base within the first weeks of his term, when, in July 2009, he voted for Public School Choice. The measure created a mechanism by which all new LAUSD schools are automatically put out to bid, so charters can apply to operate these schools. Zimmer came on board when, as a compromise, an addendum included failing schools in the conversion program. To date, however, only one charter operator, Green Dot, has ever applied to take over an LAUSD failing school.
The teacher’s union vehemently opposed Public School Choice, largely because most charters are not unionized, and every takeover means more job losses for teachers and other school staff. A.J. Duffy, immediate past president of UTLA, referred to Public School Choice as “an unmitigated disaster” and called it a “misstep” on Zimmer’s part to lend his vote.
“Having said that, I’m a realist,” Duffy added. “And when we support a candidate for school board, we don’t buy them. They don’t belong to us. Overall, Steve has been very good about pushing a progressive teacher-driven agenda.”
Zimmer defends his support of Public School Choice as a political compromise.
“Public School Choice is a better process for restarting schools than anything the federal government has come up with. But for new schools? I’ll regret forever that I voted for that,” he said. He believes the admissions process by which charters operate, as well as the disproportionately low attention given to special-needs programs, work against the core value of public education — to serve all students.
Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, admitted Zimmer has “butted heads with official union leadership — on a number of occasions.”
“He’s not a blind follower,” Durazo said. “But he believes in the fundamental value of a strong labor movement, that it is essential to a democratic society. He represents true human values; a janitor losing his or her job is not just a number to him — that’s a human being.”
The problem Zimmer faces, though, is that what matters most to him is not necessarily what matters most to everyone else. “Certainly I think about kids first, but not kids only,” he says. “Because to get kids to graduation requires adults that are well trained, performing well, and well supported.”
Zimmer was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to a middle-class family. His mother taught middle school, and his father taught business at Newark College. When Zimmer was 5, his father lost his job and purchased a blueprinting business in Bridgeport, Conn., moving the family from Jewish Mecca to a place where the boy would become the only Jew in school.
“I got beat up because of it,” he says. “I remember one time when we were doing a Christmas project, one of the kids asked, ‘Why doesn’t he have to do it?’ And my teacher said, ‘Oh, he’s not like us. He’s different, he’s Jewish.’ ” The family’s religious practice was even more alienating, as they kept a strict kosher home and attended a Conservative shul every Shabbat. Did this make him resent Judaism?
“On the contrary, I figured there must be something very special and unique about Judaism for people to hate it so much,” he says.
Being a pariah was painful, but it gave him an identity. “It was literally beaten into me at 7 years old. I felt a lot of times like my name was ‘Jew.’ ”
That sense of estrangement ruptured something deep in Zimmer that he’s been trying to reconcile ever since. “When I tell the kids about [being victimized], one of them once asked me, ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ I’m, like, ‘What do you think I’m doing?’
“There aren’t a lot of folks who have experienced hate the way I did, but who also have the agency of white male privilege,” he added. “I have no choice except to spend my life using the privilege to work toward eliminating the pain. It’s not like, ‘Oh, wow, he’s this great guy,’ or whatever. I have no choice, doing that work. That’s like breathing, for me.”
When we arrive at Richard A. Alonzo Community Day School, a continuation school that offers educational rehab for middle- and high-school students, ages 13 to 19, who have been kicked out of traditional schools, Zimmer tells me about a boy we’ll call Matthew.
A few months ago, after Matthew had been kicked out of middle school, he and his grandmother appeared before the board, begging for clemency. Matthew was facing permanent expulsion, which requires a board vote. When Zimmer heard Matthew had moved to Alonzo, he intervened, mostly because of his confidence in the school’s principal, Victorio Gutierrez, whom Zimmer calls “one of the best principals in the district.”
Zimmer waits for Matthew in Gutierrez’s office under a poster of Malcolm X. The principal and the school board member seem like good friends as they talk students, gang incidents and drugs. Both are well versed in gang lingo, dropping names like White Fence and The Drifters.
“It’s all drug distribution,” Gutierrez tells me. “It’s all through the Mexican mafia. The kids go from tagging crews, then they feed into some little pee-wee gang, then they go straight into Los Veteranos — a ‘veteran’ is a person who has done some heavy stuff — and once they do the heavy stuff, they earn the respect, and they get the tattoo.
“Wait till you meet Matthew,” Gutierrez says. “He’s a little kid, so sweet. His father is from the 42nd Street gang, and the kid came in with a crack addiction — 14 years old.”
A slight, smiling boy in massively oversize denim shorts appears in the doorway wearing his backpack. Zimmer lights up, like he’s seeing an old pal, but his voice retains an authoritative edge.
“When I go back to the board, what do I tell them?” Zimmer asks the boy.
“I’m doing good,” Matthew says.
“You’re doing good? Are you giving Mr. Gutierrez any problems?”
“No,” Gutierrez interjects. “Everybody loves him.”
“No fights?” Zimmer presses. “Nobody hitting you up” for drugs?
“He’s not even eating Cheetos anymore,” Gutierrez jokes.
“He’s not even eating Cheetos?!” Zimmer says with mock enthusiasm. “Tell your grandmother I said hi, OK? Can you tell her I say hi, so I can go back and tell everyone you’re doing good?”
On the way out, Zimmer praises Gutierrez. “That guy is transformational,” he says. “He teaches those kids, ‘Do not be ashamed of who you are.’ ” In Zimmer, he touches that deep, 7-year-old boy, the uneasy Jewish kid who wanted nothing more than to be accepted.
“What I think a lot about is, like, kids who pick themselves up at 5 o’clock in the morning, after being up all night with their 2-month-old baby, who then get on two or three buses, going through neighborhoods where they see things that are unspeakable, just to get to school and try their best,” he says.
“I cannot accept that they do all that, and we can’t do everything in our power to make sure that they get the skill set they need so that they can become the anchor in their family and not repeat the cycle all over again.”
For Zimmer, that is more important than test scores, or innovative curriculums, or getting rid of bad teachers. But some educational leaders, like Marlene Canter, who served on the school board as Zimmer’s predecessor in District 4 from 2001-2009, worry he is too invested in these at-risk kids and that it distracts him from his broader role.
“One of my concerns when Steve was running for office was that he lived on the very outskirts of my district, and the heartbeat of who he was was centered around Marshall High School,” Canter said. “He was unfamiliar with the Westside and the West Valley, and you have to get to know the world you’re representing.”
Yolie Flores, also on the board, doesn’t think he focuses enough on educational excellence. “Steve is much more worried about declining enrollment and the financial implications on the district than I am,” said Flores, who represents District 5, which covers Northeast L.A., parts of East L.A. and Southeast L.A. “I’m not interested in protecting a system, and I think Steve’s really struggling between what honors teachers and what holds people accountable.”
One of the most contentious debates surrounding education reform is the issue of teacher evaluation. Reformers want bad teachers cast out, painting them as a strain on the system. One reason charters have been so successful has been the grass-roots activism of “parent triggers” that have legally earned the right to transform public schools, usually through a charter takeover, with a simple majority vote. It is ultimately a power struggle over who should control school governance.
Zimmer stands with the union on most major issues — budget, contracts, health benefits — but says he is prepared to push hard on the issue of teacher evaluations. “No one should want teacher evaluation reform more than teachers,” he says. “Being a union supporter and supporting radical teacher evaluation reform are not mutually exclusive.”
Howard Blume, a veteran education reporter for the Los Angeles Times and former managing editor of The Jewish Journal, thinks it’s a mistake to “overly draw” Zimmer’s alliance with the union. “Steve Zimmer is one of the most independent people on the board,” Blume said, noting that during Zimmer’s first campaign, he had support from charters, labor and higher-ups at Teach for America. “Zimmer sees himself as a unifier,” Blume said. “And his opinion seems to matter to people, even when it doesn’t carry the day.”
One thing most people interviewed for this story agree upon is that Zimmer talks — a lot. Tamar Galatzan, the other Jewish member of the LAUSD board, a city attorney who represents District 3 in the West Valley, frequently finds herself agitated by Zimmer’s discourse. “Steve is very deliberative and wants to talk every issue through, in every possible permutation, before we do anything. That is a challenge for someone like me, who doesn’t have a lot of patience for talmudic discussions about reform.”
Zimmer seems to think that if he argues long enough, he’ll find a way to bring everybody together. But he can’t.
“If you talk to people in the reform community, the charter school world or the private sector, they’ll say, ‘Steve Zimmer is 100 percent labor vote on every major issue. He’s the union
guy,’ ” Zimmer admits. “But if you talk to the union, I’m described as Benedict Arnold — I’m a traitor.”
Nevertheless, in the fall, Zimmer plans to declare that he will seek re-election for another three-year term. For now, the playing field is wide open, though there is talk that previous challengers, including Stryer and Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, may challenge Zimmer’s seat. Zimmer also notes that the teachers’ union, his most ardent supporter in the last election, has told him it will consider endorsing an opponent, which could prove a blow to his campaign.
Zimmer claims he doesn’t care about the prestige that comes with being on the school board. “I already had my dream job,” he said of his teaching position at Marshall. “Going back to the classroom is not a threat to me.” But, the desire to continue to serve remains.
“I live in Hollywood, where families sleep in their cars — that’s their home,” Zimmer says. “Then I go to the Palisades, where families have homes for their cars, and I have to figure out how to make public education work for everyone.
“When I go to the Palisades, the reason parents are so upset about the calendar is because they can’t vacation. And then I come to East Hollywood, where the idea of a vacation isn’t even in their vocabulary. But the job of public schools is to make sure that the kids who have everything, and the kids who have nothing, have the same chance to have excellence.”
Zimmer’s final school stop on our day together is Elysian Valley, a continuation school in Northeast L.A. As he chats with a student, I notice a quote by George Bernard Shaw inscribed on the ceiling: “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ — I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?’ ”
Zimmer is such a man; someone who lives deeply in the world as it is, but never stops working toward what it could be.
“I never had any ambition to be a school board member,” he says on the drive home. “The position doesn’t matter to me really at all, except for what I can do. What I want for myself, what I need for myself, is irrelevant. For me, it’s about, ‘Am I uniquely positioned to do things no one else can?’ ”