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LA Unified board sets election, considers a ‘caretaker’

Vanessa Romo | January 8, 2014

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LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas addressing the board

LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas addressing the board

After weeks of uncertainty, the Los Angeles Unified school board voted last night to hold a special election in June to fill the seat left vacant by Marguerite LaMotte, who died last month.

But the remaining six members left open the possibility of appointing a caretaker to represent District 1 families and students in the interim.

The final vote was 4-2, with Monica Ratliff and Bennett Kayser as the two hold outs.

As the last member to vote, Ratliff hesitated, saying, “I want to go on the record that I am extremely concerned about District 1 not being represented.”

The vote followed several hours of impassioned speeches by public speakers – 10 of the 80 were elected officials — and an hour-long debate by board members. The measure that passed included a possible compromise from member Steve Zimmer that would provide some kind of representation on the board until the election.

Speakers await their turn.

Speakers await their turn.

The measure provides for a special election on June 3, to consolidate it with the state’s primary elections to keep costs down, and a potential runoff set as early as August 12. The winner would serve until the end of LaMotte’s term, June 30, 2015.

Zimmer’s amendment called on the district’s legal counsel to explore the legal ramifications of appointing an acting “caretaker” until the election and report back to the board next week.

District General Counsel David Holmquist advised the board against the idea of an interim.

“The law prescribes only two methods for the board to act,” he said, referring to the LA City Charter. “From what I read, it does not allow for a third or fourth choice that would mirror what would be done in an actual appointment.”

He added that a temporary board member “could potentially put at risk any votes that the board takes in the interim. It is against legal advice. We have not seen that tested anywhere.”

Kayser, who led the effort for an appointment, which failed in a 3-3 vote, also raised concerns about the role of a temporary member for District 1. He wanted to know: “Will the caretaker be able to attend closed sessions? Will the caretaker be able to review confidential documents? Will they represent LAUSD at the California School Board’s Association as Ms. LaMotte did?”

None of his questions was answered.

City Clerk Holly Walcott told the board that an election would cost the district $973,000 if it’s decided in the first round and a total of $2.5 million if a runoff is required. A runoff would be needed if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the primary vote. All costs would be paid for out of LA Unified’s general fund.

That prompted Kayser again to ask, “For two to three million, how many librarians could we bring back? How many nurses? That’s important for this discussion as well.”

An earlier motion by Zimmer calling for the best of both worlds – a special election as well as an interim appointment – was also shot down in a 4-2 vote.

Zimmer argued, “While we are clear on what the city charter allows, it’s my understanding the city charter is silent on what it does not allow.”

He urged the board to be creative: “[The city charter] is designed to be a living document; it is ink and paper not tablet and stone.” Then he got biblical: “And we have a higher calling to do what is right.”

Tamar Galatzan, who also works as a deputy city attorney, voted against Zimmer’s initial motion and said she appreciated the caretaker idea as “trying to split the baby, but unfortunately the law doesn’t allow that person to be voting member of this board.”

However, she did express a willingness to work with a non-voting appointed liaison who would inform the board about the communities wishes.

Ratliff, the only supporter of Zimmer’s initial third-way approach, called it a “fantastic” idea.

“I love the idea of trying to think outside the box,” she said enthusiastically. “If ever there was a time that the second largest school district should attempt a change like this it is now.”

Over the next six months the board will face hard decisions on some of the biggest public policy issues facing public education in decades, including how to distribute state and federal funds under the Local Control Funding Formula and the Local Control Accountability Plan. The district has to agree on a budget by June, and implement new Common Core standards by fall.

There are also lingering iPad issues and an intense debate ahead over how to spend $7 billion for repairs and renovations that will become available through a bond sale.

With an even number of members on the board, the next six months are shaping up to be charged with conflict and 3-3 voting deadlocks on most controversial issues. A tie spells defeat for any motion.

More than 130 people waited for hours for the opportunity to speak, though as the night dragged on, many gave up and went home.

Still, the majority of those who stuck it out supported an appointment. And most them, 34 of the 50 who wanted an appointment, championed George McKenna, a retired LA Unified administrator and former superintendent for several local school districts.

McKenna was among them. He told the board, “I’m here because I want to serve. I’m not here to promote myself. It’s awkward for me.”

Only two speakers promoting an appointment mentioned another candidate: Alex Caputo-Pearl and Gregg Solkovits, both candidates for the teachers union presidency this year, expressed support for Jimmie Woods-Gray.

Former school board president and City Council member Rita Walters reminded the board that there is precedent for appointing a new member, dating back to 1979. She said to leave the seat vacant while the board waits for a special election would be tantamount to an “abnegation and denial of civil rights.”

A representative for U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass said she’d like to see an appointment. “We know gridlock in Washington. We’d hate to see that here.” Bass had earlier supported an election.

Chris Hickey, Executive Director of Each One Teach One, who also favored the appointment of McKenna, packed a powerful punch when he challenged the board to abstain from voting on future matters as long as LaMotte’s seat went unfilled. “I would ask you that when these very important issues come up you stand up and not vote for your district. You wouldn’t turn your back on your own community and say, ‘I’m not going to vote because District 1 is not represented.’”

Perhaps the biggest winner of the board’s decision was LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who has been the most vocal and visible proponent of a special election. He was the last of the elected officials to address the board.

“Democracy matters,” he said. “And it matters all day long.”

He told LA School Report that he would “embrace” the appointment of someone in an administrative capacity to act as a go-between for the south LA community and the district. And he said he’s comfortable allowing the sitting board members to make decisions on behalf of the region in the meantime.

“If they want to face the criticism of a community that feels disrespected there are ways of addressing that,” he said. He suggested the community “can sue.”

In the weeks leading up to last night’s meeting several other black leaders have emerged as potential candidates for the seventh seat. Genethia Hayes, a former board member and president, told LA School Report earlier this week that she would run if there’s an election. Hayes lost her seat in 2003 to LaMotte.

Another possibility is Alex Johnson, an education aide to Ridley-Thomas, said he is “consulting with advisors and having conversations with a range of people.”

Board member Monica Garcia, who is known to dominate board meetings and often requires no microphone to be heard, remained unusually quiet throughout the proceedings. Even after she was chided by two speakers for favoring an election over filling the vacancy, she refrained from voicing her reasons for keeping the seat empty.

Whoever is elected will hold the seat for a maximum of 10 months before the next election cycle for the District 1 seat.

In 2011, fewer than 40,000 District 1 residents out of approximately 650,000, cast a ballot.

Previous Posts: Ex-LA Unified board president, Genethia Hayes, eyes District 1 seatEditorial boards agree on special election for LAUSD seatPressures are building on how and when to fill LaMotte’s LAUSD seat.

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