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Analysis: Zimmer takes center stage in LAUSD drama

Jamie Alter Lynton | January 9, 2014

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zimmerfourEmerging as something of a Shakespearean figure, LA Unified School Board trustee Steve Zimmer took central stage earlier this week at a long board meeting complete with its share of sound and fury.

Zimmer, facing one of the most challenging moments in his political career, had been publicly cryptic about his position on the evening’s big decision: whether the vacant seat on the board left by the sudden death of Marguerite LaMotte should be filled by a board appointment or special election.

Ever since an election last spring created a board more sympathetic with positions of the teachers union, Zimmer has played an increasingly pivotal role on the fractured board, leaving him somewhat stuck in the middle. While he was re-elected last year with big support from the union’s super PAC, Zimmer nonetheless recently stepped in to help save Superintendent John Deasy’s job- a move that couldn’t have gone down well with union leadership that has made no secret of wanting Deasy’s head.

This week, as a critical vote on a split board, Zimmer appeared sympathetic and earnest, repeating multiple times that he came to listen to the packed room — filled with members of the South Los Angeles community who made impassioned pleas both in favor of an appointment and an election.

The option of appointing a member got great traction among a certain faction, mostly coalescing around George McKenna, a well-known figure at LAUSD who had support from US Representative Maxine Waters and many community members despite little visible support from the teachers union.

While an appointment would have allowed the district to have representation immediately, and perhaps resolve what increasingly appears like a stalemate on the board, it also has particularly bad optics: a school board comprised of mostly white members anointing a successor to replace the popular African American leader LaMotte could reek of disfranchisement of the black community, as numerous speakers pointed out during the meeting.

LaMotte herself voted to hold a special election in 2005, the only other time in recent history that a vacancy has occurred. There was also the issue of whether the board itself could even agree on an appointee – a thorny one for board members who may regard McKenna with the same suspicion as the teachers union.

At the start, Zimmer played his hand without hesitation: on the first motion to appoint a successor he voted with the two union-backed board members, Bennett Kayser and Monica Ratliff. The motion lost 3-3.

That left little wiggle room; the remaining solution would seem to be a straight up and down vote on calling a special election, which, even if tied 3-3, would default to an election according to law.

But Zimmer surprised the room by proposing a novel and legally questionable notion: why not challenge the City Charter, and appoint an “interim” board member to serve while waiting for a special election in June?  Arguing the code doesn’t specifically prohibit it, he supported his idea with double-negative logic, stating, “the city charter is silent on what it does not allow.”

Zimmer then argued passionately and with great authenticity about his belief that in this situation there are ‘two rights’ — the validity of both the electoral process and of getting immediate representation. While his magical thinking pleased the crowd, legal counsel David Holmquist advised he was skating on thin ice. Holmquist has now told LA School Report that appointing an interim board member vested with the power to take action is not legal.

In the end, Zimmer’s motion for an “interim” appointee failed, 4-2, when Kayser and Richard Vladovic joined forces with reform-minded board members Monica Garcia and Tamar Galatzan, a lineup that may never again be seen.

And where does that leave Steve Zimmer?

He scored points for pushing hard and with significant creativity for an appointment, but in the end he didn’t hold out. In the final vote – on whether to call a special election, Zimmer could have sided with Ratliff and Kayser, resulting in a 3-3 tie and leaving the decision to go to an election by default. But that would have been risky, resulting in a long delay blamed on him.

So the dramatic evening ended with Zimmer casting a defining vote in support of motion calling for a special election, which won 4-2, and vowing to find a way, any way, to write the next act.


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