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LAUSD candidates McKenna, Johnson set for election runoff

Michael Janofsky | June 4, 2014

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LAUSD School Board Candidate George McKenna wins big, but still heads to election run-off in August

George McKenna on election night

And now there are two.

LAUSD school board candidates George McKenna and Alex Johnson outpolled five others in yesterday’s election, but neither reached a majority, moving them into an August runoff to fill LA Unified’s vacant District 1 seat.

McKenna, 73, a career school administrator and early favorite to replace the late Marguerite LaMotte, was the clear winner in a low-turnout election, winning 15,442 votes, or 44.28 percent. Johnson, 33, an education aide to LA Country Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, was second, with 8,605 votes, 24.67 percent.

Sherlett Hendy-Newbill, a teacher and one of three candidates endorsed by the LA teachers union, UTLA, was a distant third, with 3,293 votes, just 9.44 percent.

McKenna had been the clear choice for a temporary appointment to the board when board members were debating whether to fill the seat through an appointment or an election. Early on, he said he only wanted the seat by appointment, but when that option faded, he jumped into the race.

100 Percent Reporting on LAUSD School Board Election 2014

His near 2-to-1 margin over Johnson, now gives him a clear edge as they now begin a two-month campaign to a runoff scheduled for Aug. 12.

“Our most heartfelt thanks and appreciation to everyone who knocked on doors, called neighbors, and engaged friends on social media. Let’s keep it going in the weeks to come!” was the message on McKenna’s Facebook page.

McKenna’s victory came despite Johnson’s overwhelming money advantage in the race. While both candidates piled up dozens of endorsements, Johnson raised more than $244,000 in individual contributions and needed almost every penny of it to prevent McKenna from winning just 2,447 votes more, which would have given him an outright victory.

McKenna raised just $154,000.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s finish was a strong showing for a political neophyte who had none of the name recognition within the district that McKenna had. His runner-up status was a tribute to his campaign tactics, which include a heavy boost from his boss, Ridley-Thomas, and the benefits of money. He spent the equivalent of $28 a vote, compared with McKenna, at $10 a vote.

When it appeared he would finish in the top two, Johnson said last night, “The voters of District 1 have very clearly shown with their ballots that they want an elected school board member who will bring new ideas and new energy to their L.A. Board of Education. They want a school board member who will fight to improve their schools.”

Just how many District 1 voters want all that remains to be seen.

With the school board primary part of the same primary in which voters were choosing candidates in all the statewide offices as well as for federal positions, only 34,876 of the District’s 338,986 registered voters — an almost pathetic10 percent — weighed in on the school board seat.

That’s an unusually low turnout that portends even fewer voters two months from now when nothing else is on the ballot.

Among those who did vote, they showed their preferences for two candidates who are, politically, polar opposites of LaMotte, whose decade on the board was marked by her fervent support for the teachers union. McKenna has stressed his independence on issues, and Johnson had the benefit of $62,000 in campaign spending by a group affiliated with the California Charter Schools Association.

Voters showed little interest in the three candidates UTLA supported with the maximum $1,100 donations — Hendy-Newbill, Rachel Johnson, who was fifth with 1,870 votes, and Hattie McFrazier, who finished last with 1,399 votes.

Genethia Hudley-Hayes, a former school board member and well-known educator whose campaign was marred by her inaccurate resume, was fourth, with 2,431 votes, and Omarosa Manigault, a former TV personality, was sixth, with 1,836 votes.

Aside from its sudden addition to the calendar, the election came at a critical juncture in the school year.

The current six board members are ensconced in negotiations over the 2014-2015 budget, which needs to be finalized by June 17, complete with a spending plan to help English learners, foster youth and students from low-income families. The state must approve it.

Beyond that, there are a myriad of other issues before the board that have been impacted, one way or another, by having only six members vote.

In recent weeks, Sylvia Rousseau, a veteran educator, has been serving as a liaison to District 1, largely to serve as a conduit between local residents and the board. But she has no voting rights nor even permission to sit with other board members in their meeting seats.

Before and during Rousseau’s involvement, District 1 residents have been pressing the board to provide more assets and support for students in the district, historically the city’s lowest-performing.

Part of the challenge has been addressed with new money from the state to fund areas of greatest need. But just how that money will be distributed, and for what, remains part of budget negotiations that have proceeded without a District 1 vote.

The conclusion of this year’s election ends a prelude, of sorts, to a much larger election season next year, when this same seat and three others will be contested.

While it’s unclear whether this year’s winner in District 1 intends to try again next year, two other candidates — Daymond Johnson and Rodney Robinson — have registered to run for the seat. District 3’s member, Tamar Galatzan, is facing two challengers — Elizabeth Badger and Carl Petersen; and District 5’s Bennett Kayser is facing an SEIU official, Kathryn Torres.

Only Board President Richard Vladovic, of District 7, is so far running unopposed.

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