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Analysis: Why the LAUSD school board race attracted so few voters

Michael Janofsky | June 5, 2014

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Low Voter Turnout Ca Primary LAUSDThe voters have spoken.

Well, some of them spoke. OK, a handful did.

Turnout for the California primary on Tuesday was routinely disappointing — 18.3 percent statewide, 13.1 percent across LA County and how about that LA Unified District 1 school board race: 10 percent.

Democracy inaction.

Among 338,986 registered voters in the district, only 34,876 cast a ballot for someone to serve on the board of the nation’s second-largest school district, a front-row seat to critical decisions affecting 650,000 school kids.

As Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School and vice president of the LA Ethics Commission, wrote yesterday about the statewide primary on the Politix blog, “What the what?”

Looking for a reason? Opinions vary.

“The turnout was not driven by a specific feeling about this race,” said Roy Behr, a campaign consultant to Alex Johnson, who finished second to George McKenna to make the August runoff. “Rather, it was by a whole set of races on the ballot, very few of which were interesting or competitive.”

To some degree that’s true. Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris all performed as expected, breezing through their primaries to face much lesser-known challengers in November.

But the school board race was wide open, with no incumbent and each of the seven candidates bringing a unique set of assets, liabilities and political loyalties to the table. Voters had a real choice.

Yet only 1 in 10 took advantage of that.

But there’s another theory out there.

Dermot Givens, a lawyer LaMotte appointed to the 2011 LAUSD Redistricting Commission, says the apathy is a reflection of history, frustration and neglect.

“People in District 1 have heard it, seen it, done it, and nothing has changed,” he said, explaining why so many voters ignored the election. “They fight the good fight, and at the end of the day, they know they’re going to lose.”

From Diane Watson as the district’s board member in the 1970s through Barbara Boudreaux, Genethia Hudley-Hayes and LaMotte, who served a decade before her death in December, district voters have waited and hoped for substantial change, “and it’s always the same issues,” he said, “It’s sad.”

Indeed, as the district has changed demographically from a large majority of African Americans to a more diverse mix with Latinos, local residents raise the same concerns they’ve raised for decades, Givens said — lagging academic performance and graduation rates, even inadequate school supplies.

“If kids go to school in District 1,” he said, “nothing changes.”

Does apathy dissipate in an August runoff? While it depends largely on the programs put forth by the candidates, it’s hard to imagine a more energized citizenry two months from now in a stand-alone election. More likely, half as many people will vote.

A lot could depend on what the teachers union, UTLA, does, if anything. LaMotte was its staunchest supporter on the board, but neither McKenna nor Johnson has given any indication that they have larger loyalties to teachers than to any other group. Through the primary, Johnson was the favorite of the city’s charter school forces — the arch-enemy of unionists.

The union kicked in a few bucks to help three candidates in the primary but was otherwise a non-player. All three finished a long distance from the top. Maybe the union re-calibrates for the runoff, helping to energize community interest. But it’s doubtful, especially with the District 1 seat and three others up for election next year.

Whatever the union, the charter people or anyone else does, it all comes down to three options for District 1 voters in August:

Vote for McKenna, a long-time school administrator whose turnaround efforts at George Washington Preparatory High School became the subject of a 1986 made-for-TV movie with Denzel Washington playing McKenna (“Older black women love Denzel,” Givens said).

Vote for Johnson, an educational aide to County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose considerable influence helped his colleague raise money and gain endorsements.

Or vote for nobody, a sure sign that the educational issues in LA Unified’s District 1 continue to spur more hopelessness than hope, no matter what changes the two candidates promise.


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