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Five Minutes: School Board Candidate Robert Zirgulis

This second-time contender says he understands students' needs because he's been a substitute teacher at every grade level.

A self-proclaimed entrepreneur and lover of the environment, Robert Zirgulis has much to say about how the school board would change if he were elected. Although he has run for school board once in 2009 and City Council in 2010, he has yet to win, making him hungry for a victory. He sat down with Culver City Patch editor Winter Johnson to discuss his vision for the school board.

Culver City Patch: What made you decide to throw your hat in the ring again for school board?

Robert Zirgulis: Why did I become a substitute teacher? That’s the important thing, that’s how I became involved with the school board. I have traveled around the world three times, once when I was poor, and once when I had my own business—I had an import, export business, and I have had a lot of world experiences. And my son graduated from Culver City High, and became a substitute teacher and then became a professor of Lithuanian. He would tell me, “Pop, you have all of these experiences, how are you going to give them back?”

I really enjoy substitute teaching. I really respect teachers, especially when you see what they do, they have to have lesson plans and they have the same class day in and day out. As a substitute teacher, you get to teach from kindergarten through high school. I like teaching kids because I get to relive what it was like being a first-grader. You go into first grade and all of these memories flood back of what it was like being in first grade and you play games that I remember as a kid, and get to talk about experiences.

And then in high school, they tell me about what’s going on, and they ask me about what it was like in the '60s—it’s an education that goes both ways. I like it … to me it’s fun. The nice thing about it is that you’re there one day, and then the next day you go, it’s a different class and a different challenge.

The reason why I got involved is because I saw all of these budget cuts. I like to problem solve. I got a master’s in business management from Cal State Northridge, and one of the things they teach you is how to problem solve, and there are a lot of solutions to the budgets at this school district. Instead of cutting days to teachers—I’ve seen what it does, it’s not fair to the students and it’s not fair to the teachers. I think there are other ways to have budget cuts and to raise money for the schools.

Patch: What are your suggestions?

Zirgulis: Why not have solar panels? Finally, they’re doing something about it, it’s taken them over two years, but if I had been elected we would have had these solar panels in the schools.

Another suggestion, the school district’s parking lot is empty on weekends, and you know that it’s hard to find parking on the weekends in Culver City. I made the suggestion, "Why don’t you rent out the parking lot?" Dead silence from the school board. This is what got me frustrated, I made suggestions and they don’t do anything about it.

There are 66 parking spaces, but you could actually put 100 spaces there. That’s just one source of income that the school could use. I believe in win-win situations. The school could make money on the weekends, the valet guys wouldn’t have to run to Watseka, people could get their cars faster, that’s just one example of what I could do.

I am a Realtor also. I list myself as an entrepreneur because I collect experiences. Entrepreneurs put things together to make things new.

I’ve lived in Culver City since 1984, and my kids went through the Culver City school system. My kids used to swim in the natatorium, but for 18 years, nothing has been happening with it. I’ve been inside the natatorium, I’ve seen hypodermic needles in there, people sneak in there, there’s bird crap everywhere. The place has been run down.

My suggestion was to sell the building to investors, who in turn would refurbish the building, make the pool operable, and they would lease from the profits of the building. From the money that the school got, they could lease the pool back. The investors would get a write-off, the school would get a swimming pool. I talked to Micheal [Mayor Micheal O'Leary], and he said that it wasn’t a bad idea.

I want to make relationships with the city. This is a win-win situation.

Patch: How would you change the operations of the board?

Zirgulis: I have make lots of suggestions to the board, and they never act on any of the suggestions that I have made. As a board member, I would be able to agendize items.

For example, right now there is an initiative out there called Rescue Education California where they want to impose an oil extraction tax. For years, I have been calling for oil companies to give money to the schools—finally there is an initiative out there that can raise $3 billion for the schools. Oil companies would be prevented from passing on the tax to consumers. You would think that all the candidates would be jumping on the bandwagon to support this initiative. I haven’t heard a peep from any of them.

People have accused me of being with the oil companies, which is a crock considering my stance on environmental issues. A few years ago with this whole PXP thing, I was calling for dialogue not lawsuits. I am glad that they finally settled it, and I agree with the concessions that PXP made, I would like to see a park there. Here I am trying to get $3 billion out of the oil companies, and they’re silent. A lot of people out there were saying I was pro-oil.

Patch: Why should Culver City residents vote for you?

Zirgulis: They should vote for me because I am the one who is going to do something. I’ve got the energy, the initiative. I will talk. I encourage spirited debate. I will not give someone a $150 fine for talking politically incorrect. I believe in open debate. I will be championing all these initiatives.

I was teaching an algebra class once, and this kid was being totally disruptive. I pulled him aside and asked him what was going on. I asked him,  “Do you know what 7x8 is?” The kid didn’t know what 7x8 is. I thought, “No wonder you’re being disruptive, you don’t know the answer.” What I would do is not say you’re a failure, but talk to him, and put him in a class where he can learn the basics. You have to have empathy for kids. I understand them, and I am a problem solver.

I’ve taught every single kid in school because I’ve jumped around. That’s why I know more about the schools then the administrators because I’ve seen every school. I have a better perspective, that’s what qualifies me more than these other guys because I’ve been to every classroom. I’ve seen what is going on. I’m very outspoken. I don’t mind speaking my mind; I have nothing to lose.

Interested in speaking with Robert Zirgulis about his campaign initiatives? He is having coffee chats every Sunday from 10-12 a.m. this month at the Starbucks across from City Hall.

Corky Jackson September 07, 2011 at 07:15 PM
I'm curious what Mr. Zirgulis thinks about the Culver City School District's continuing using Polystyrene (Styrofoam) trays for hot food for the students, after the U.S. Dept of Health has deemed the Styrene in Styrofoam a "carcinogen?"

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