By Laurel Busby
Allison Holdorff Polhill seeks to bring the knowledge and skills she gained during six years as a Palisades Charter High School board member to a new position on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.
“This village [of Pacific Palisades] does an amazing job of supporting our schools, and I would like to see that spread throughout L.A.,” Holdorff Polhill said. “PaliHi is a great example of how a board can work with and appreciate teachers, address student needs and also balance the budget. The way that everyone [at Pali] is working together collaboratively is something we worked hard to get to, and we’re there. We’re serving the kids.”
Holdorff Polhill will be running to replace Steve Zimmer, a two-term LAUSD school board member, in representing District 4, a sprawling area that includes the Palisades, Westchester, Venice, Hollywood, Brentwood, Westwood, Mar Vista, Encino, Topanga, Toluca Lake, Tarzana and Woodland Hills. The election will take place March 7 with a runoff on May 19.
Her goal is to bring a “student-first lens” to the agenda, an improved overall graduation and proficiency rate, and a balanced budget to the district. She would also like to change the focus of the board, so it both avoids micromanaging and drops the debate about traditional vs. charter schools.
“The first thing I would do is get the sev- en members together and ask that we agendize things through a student-first lens and get in our lane of oversight with less micromanaging,” Holdorff Polhill said. “Within that, you’ve got to look at that budget, because that budget right now is out of line.”
The district has a projected $663 million overall deficit next school year, and according to this year’s final budget, the deficit would balloon to more than $1.5 billion for the 2018-19 school year.
In coming years, the district’s budget crisis will likely only worsen because the number of enrolled students is projected to drop each year, which reduces state funding, Holdorff Polhill said.
At PaliHi, the approximately $30 million budget is balanced each year, and the school annually contributes $670,260 toward life-time faculty health benefits. LAUSD has a much larger $15.53 billion budget, and within that budget, the $7.6 billion general fund budget allots money for the instruction of its more than 640,000 students.
LAUSD’s annual budget is divided into funds, including more than $9 billion in the operating fund of which the general fund is a part, $2.86 billion for capital projects, $1.83 billion for debt service and $1.54 billion for the internal services fund, which pays current employee benefits. About $220 million is set aside this year for future retirees.
Currently, LAUSD has $13 billion in unfunded lifetime health benefits, said Holdorff Polhill, who has been learning about the board’s operations by listening to LAUSD board meetings.
“The budget was so abysmal,” Holdorff Polhill said. At Pali, she honed her skills with government policy, agenda-setting and balanced budgets. “These are skills I can bring to the board, and these are things I can help with.”
The students throughout the district also have varying opportunities, ranging from high-performing schools like PaliHi where 96 percent of students graduate to schools like Early College Academy with a graduation rate of 32 percent for the 2014-15 school year. In 2014-15, the average graduation rate for the district was 74 percent, according to the district website.
“Depending on your zip code, you may not have great educational choices,” said Holdorff Polhill, whose three children, Alex, 23, Lucy, 20, and Carter, 18, all graduated from Pali. LAUSD’s “graduation rate has improved, but a lot of kids are not graduating or are not A-G ready [eligible for state university attendance] . . . or are below proficient. I would like to take everything I’ve learned at Pali and take it to LAUSD.”
Holdorff Polhill’s first venture on a school board occurred in 1982-83 when she was a senior at Yucaipa High School and represented students on the Yucaipa High board. “This is a passion I’ve had for quite a long time,” she noted.
After graduation, she attended college at UCLA where she became a national debate champion, and then earned a law degree at Loyola. However, when she and her husband Lucius, a commercial insurance broker, had children, she took a break from law. “I realized I needed to invest in their educations,” said Holdorff Polhill, who currently coaches PaliHi’s debate team.
Holdorff Polhill was elected to the governing boards of Palisades Charter Elementary and Paul Revere Charter Middle School and eventually PaliHi. In addition, over the years, she has chaired booster organizations and served as an auction fundraising chair, a teacher appreciation event coordinator and a parent assistant in the classroom. She also was part of 13 board committees at PaliHi.
“I have a vast amount of experience,” she said. “I know how to collaborate, and I know how to get things done.”
During her work with Pali, she helped addressed several crises, including when the district stopped funding bussing to the school. Holdorff Polhill lobbied for the school to pay for bussing so its then-current students could graduate, and she subsequently worked to find funding so Pali’s diverse student body, with almost 3,000 students from 100 zip codes, could remain so.
Holdroff Polhill also helped the board struggle through a contentious salary negotiation process with the faculty that included a student petition calling for the ouster of Pali’s principal. However, the school worked through the difficulties, hiring a mediator for negotiations and communication specialists to improve the school climate. Both efforts paid off, and both salary negotiations and the school climate have improved, according to stakeholders.
In addition, Pali’s board has considered oversight vs. minutia regularly in its meetings so as not to micromanage the administration, and Holdorff Polhill would like to bring those insights to the district. For example, she said LAUSD recently had a 13-hour meeting that spent substantial time discussing excess milk waste.
“The board was opining on whether they should sweeten the milk,” Holdorff Polhill said. “This is a thing that the board should not be spending a lot of time on.” Instead, she said the board should apply a “student-first lens” to the agenda to make certain that student needs are prioritized. “I think everyone on that board has good intentions to help kids, but when you’re not spending your time focused on what’s best for the kids and you’re spending your time on minutia, then you’re not able to help kids.”
As a parent, she also supports a variety of school options for kids during a time when charters have multiplied and school districts have not always been supportive of this change.
“We need to look at ending this fight of traditional vs. non-traditional schools,” Holdorff Polhill said. Instead, “look at what is the best thing for our kids. Parents and kids deserve educational choices. We need to get beyond these arguments of one is superior to the other. We need to create as many excellent educational environments as these kids need.”