A special election in June has been set to replace former Los Angeles Unified School District board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte who passed away in December, and the election may change the course for the nation's second-largest school district. LaMotte was a critic of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy and was close to the teachers union. Her replacement has the opportunity to play an influential role on the seven member board, writes Howard Blume of The Los Angeles Times.
If her successor lines up with LaMotte's views it could pose a hurdle to Deasy, but if the election ends with a Deasy ally, the board majority could be an asset.
The African-American community is also monitoring this race very closely. District 1 has been held by an African-American for decades and the officeholder is viewed as a guardian of black students. Black voters make up the districts largest voting bloc and account for 28% of the school's enrollment. Civic leaders in the black community tried unsuccessfully to fill the spot for 18 months by appointee, and now it is left up to the special election.
The group is diverse with LaMotte loyalists wanting a successor like her, and Deasy activists who are willing to work with him; Supt. Deasy has impressed many by focusing on reducing the number of out of school suspensions among black and Latino boys. LaMotte was respected as a long time board member, but many complained that she accomplished little while in office.
The camp is reasonably united in its wariness of outside interests and what it regards as patronizing rhetoric.
"In general, African American voters are suspicious of this whole education reform movement," said political consultant Eric Hacopian. "They think of it as some Trojan horse for rich white people who want to privatize schools."
Some have turned to discussing retired senior administrator George McKenna as a possible appointee.
McKenna, who retired in mid-2012, was a rarity within L.A. Unified, a Deasy underling who was willing to disagree strongly with the schools chief to his face — albeit behind the scenes. McKenna's stubborn independence and frankness have unsettled the union and Deasy allies alike — making him all the more appealing to some supporters.
Another contender is L.A. county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has a political base in his county which overlaps LaMotte's.
In South L.A., when there is a fight, it's "generally between Mark Ridley-Thomas and the counter-Ridley-Thomas faction," Hacopian said.
An alliance with Ridley-Thomas could make the difference either for the teachers union, which is short on money and unity, or Deasy allies, who have an image problem.
The teachers union helped finance LaMotte's three successful board campaigns, but has its own upcoming election and is under financial strain. Union opponents have stepped in including philanthropist Eli Broad, former Mayor Richard Riorden, and last election cycle's major out of town contributor, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The philanthropists see Deasy as an ally in their effort to limit teacher seniority protection and to base teachers pay and evaluations partly on students test scores. The donations received little return in previous years due to LaMotte considering wealthy donors as untrustworthy outside interests. If Ridley-Thomas backed these donors it may cause community concern.
"I happen to be indigenous to this terrain and intimately familiar with it," Ridley-Thomas said in an interview. "And I expect to credibly advocate for the people who reside in the 1st District."
Other candidates include Genethia Hudley Hayes, a former school board member, Sherlett Hendy Newbill, a teacher and union chapter chair, and Rachel Johnson, a Gardena City Council member and longtime L.A. Unified elementary teacher.
"Whoever can accumulate money in the shortest period of time will be formidable," said Rachel Johnson. At the same time, "you can't underestimate the awareness of the voter. This now has created a firestorm of interest in the 1st District."