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After all the noise, turnout for school board race is uncertain

Vanessa Romo | June 2, 2014

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Graphic Voter Turnout LAUSDAfter the sudden death of LA Unified school board member Marguerite LaMotte nearly six months ago, her District 1 constituents have rallied inside and outside district headquarters, demanding representation on the board. Some wanted an immediate appointment to fill her seat. Others called for a special election.

The latter group won out and tomorrow, residents from southwest LA will get a chance to translate their passion into action — by electing a new representative from among seven candidates for the remaining year of LaMotte’s term.

Ordinarily school board elections don’t generate much public interest, the eagerness to fill LaMotte’s seat not withstanding. With approximately 300,000 registered voters in District 1, fewer than 44,000 cast a ballot — under 15 percent — when the seat was last contested, in 2011. That could change in this race because it is scheduled on the same day as a statewide primary.

“School board races are often held on off-years during the LA City elections, but since this one is tied to the state primary race, the turnout is going to be extremely high for an LA Unified special election,” Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University told LA School Report.

He expects about a quarter of District 1 voters will weigh in on the next school board member.

But in a race with so many candidates, Guerra says, the increase in civic participation is like mutually assured destruction. “It just makes it almost impossible for one candidate to get more than 50 percent of the vote,” he added.

If a single candidate fails to capture the support of a majority of voters, the top two contenders face off in a runoff election in August.

And that runoff, he predicted, will produce one of lowest turnouts in recent memory because it will be a stand alone election in August and voters will have no other reason to head to the polls.

“I think only about 5 percent of voters will get out for that, and that’s when really, anything can happen,” Guerra said.

Candidates viewed as frontrunners spent their final weekend before the election doing what they could to drum up more votes. George McKenna held a fundraiser dinner Saturday evening and used Sunday “walking, knocking and talking” to what he hopes will be victory. Alex Johnson was in and out of local churches Sunday morning, then spent the afternoon making door to door visits to voters. Sherlett Hendy-Newbill kept up her Saturday “weekend blowout” tradition, walking the precinct.

With LaMotte’s passing, the teachers union lost one of its most ardent supporters and a staunch critic of Superintendent John Deasy. But UTLA has invested little capital or manpower supporting any one candidate. Instead, the union voted to back all three union members in the race – Kindergarten teacher, Rachel Johnson, former teacher and school counselor, Hattie McFrazier, and high school teacher and coach, Hendy-Newbill. The union donated $1,100 to each campaign.

It is the same strategy UTLA deployed in the District 6 race last year, in Monica Ratliff‘s surprise victory over Antonio Sanchez.

“We believe in all of the teachers we’ve endorsed,” Marco Flores, the head of UTLA’s political action committee, PACE, told LA School Report back in April.

He said UTLA will step in “with boots on the ground” only if one of the three UTLA candidates makes it to the runoff, but he doesn’t expect the union will kick in much money because “the truth is,” he said, “whoever gets elected won’t be there very long.”

Hendy-Newbill , a popular teacher at Dorsey High School, has emerged as the front-runner among the union contenders. Last week, she gained the endorsement of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group led by Diane Ravitch, one of the strongest voices in the country opposed to standardized testing and charter schools.

An outright win by Hendy-Newbill would be a major upset in the race, which polls say is largely between McKenna and Alex Johnson, the leading money raisers.

Johnson, who has been championed by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, has out-raised all of the competition, with $208,000 in individual contributions and another $80,000 from three political action committees, including one that has received major funding from the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee.

McKenna doesn’t have as much money — he’s raised $122,533 — but he has been a beloved figure in south LA since the 1980s when he turned a gang-riddled high school in the area into a high-achieving academic preparatory. His efforts were later dramatized into a made-for-TV movie starring Denzel Washington.

The retired educator was the leading choice for parents who were advocating for an immediate appointment by the board.

Genethia Hudley-Hayes also has name recognition within the community. She is the only candidate who has actually served on the school board, representing the same south LA district.

She won a narrow victory in 1999 against an incumbent, sweeping into office with a reform slate that was backed by then-Mayor Richard Riordan. Her tenure lasted four years, until she was defeated in 2003 by LaMotte. But by many accounts, her term in office, including the first two years as board president, Hudley-Hayes won a reputation as a leader with record of success.

The one asterisk to her campaign has been the references on her resume that suggest she has academic degrees that she doesn’t have.

Omarosa Manigault is the wildest of wildcards in the group. The former reality-TV star turned special ed substitute teacher certainly is recognizable, but it’s unclear if she will be taken seriously by voters or if her message — District 1 “needs a representative who will propel our young people into the future. District 1 needs new energy, new ideas and fresh leadership” — will resonate.

She has raised very little money, about $25,000, and spent only about half of that. She has not reported any additional contributions since mid-March.

Manigualt participated in only a few of more than a dozen community forums leading up to the election.

Regardless of who wins tomorrow or in an August runoff, the whole process starts anew in less than a year when this seat, plus three others – Districts 3, 5, and 7  – are up.

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