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Close on issues, District 1 candidates flashing personalities

Vanessa Romo | May 8, 2014

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Candidates at district 1 forum LAUSD

Candidates McKenna (at mic), Hudley-Hayes, Johnson, Hendy-Newbill

The Ward A.M.E. Church in South LA was packed for a Wednesday night. But the people filing through doors weren’t there to talk about Jesus (though his name did come up). They were there to talk about the race for LA Unified School Board District 1.

Sherlett Hendy-Newbill, Alex Johnson, Genethia Hudley-Hayes and George McKenna — the only candidates among seven running who were invited — put on their “If-I-were-elected-hats” and discussed the district’s funding and resources, improving the school climate, preparing students for the 21st century, school performance, and community accountability.

Over the past three months there have been about 10 of these events. And although each has featured a different combination of school board hopefuls, by now most candidates have their talking points well honed. They also appear to agree on most issues — routing money to the neediest kids, investing in professional development for teachers and administrators, reducing police presence on school campus, boost after-school programs.

So it’s now their style and personality that is beginning to set them apart.

At last night’s forum McKenna, a 30-year veteran educator and who was played by Denzel Washington in a movie based on his life, became everyone’s wise-cracking favorite uncle.

On the issue of school discipline and the disproportionate punishment of African American students over their white counterparts, McKenna told the audience he identifies with today’s young black students because he was a rambunctious student.

“There was a point in my career where I was in charge of corporal punishment and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it,” he said to a laughing crowd. “Because I was once the swat-ee. I was swatted by priests in the name of Jesus.”

Afterward, Christen Hebrand who was wearing a “McKenna for School Board” button, told LA School Report, “You can see that he really knows how to connect with people. But it’s not just that he makes you laugh, he also has the experience for the position.”

She said McKenna also has name recognition. “When I go out to campaign for him one out of two already know him,” she said. “Their kids went to one of his schools, their cousin, their nephew. Somebody they know, knows him.”

Johnson’s performance didn’t elicit many laughs, but he proved to know his facts and figures. He was the only candidate to consistently site specific numbers in almost every answer:

“District 1 has a higher rate of students being pushed out of school and into probation camps. It’s 2.9 percent higher.”

“LA Unified has $7.8 billion in Measure Q bond funds that are still available to use for construction projects.”

“70,000 computer science jobs in California are unfilled because we don’t have enough students going into that field.”

“The district should award 30 percent of it’s building contracts to minority owned companies.”

On the other hand, Hendy-Newbill was every bit Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t  lose!” She was the only candidate at the forum who still works in a school — Dorsey High School — as a teachers and basketball coach, and her day-to-day experiences appeared to resonate with parents in the audience.

A theme to which she constantly returned was the importance of parent engagement.

One of the loudest cheers she got from the audience was when she said, “We have students who want to be at Dorsey all of the time. It is their second home, their home away from home. And that’s what I want schools to be: family centers.”

Finally, Hudley-Hayes, who, like McKenna, is another life-long educator and former school board president, came across a bit more austere and lacked McKenna’s warmth, according to a few attendees.

“It’s clear she has the experience but she doesn’t speak to me,” Gloria Martin told LA School Report.

Martin explained that Hayes’ “When I was on the board” attitude turned her off. As a mother of LA Unified graduates and now grandmother of LA Unified students, Martin wondered, “If [Hayes] was on the school board then what did she do?”

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