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McKenna or Johnson: It’s now in voter hands, but how many?

Michael Janofsky | August 11, 2014

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Alex Johnson and George McKenna LAUSD

Alex Johnson (left), George McKenna (right)

Tomorrow is election day. After eight months without a representative on the LA Unified school board, residents of District 1 will once more have equal representation with the other six members, maybe by the end of the week.

The new member replaces the late Marguerite LaMotte and will join the board after the vote count is certified, a process expected to take only a few days — especially if predictions of a low turnout prove accurate. Just 13 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots for school board candidates in the June 3 primary, when other elections were also underway.

This time, the school board election stands alone for District 1 voters.

As for the candidates, they could not be more different:

George McKenna, 74, who won the primary with nearly 45 percent of the vote, is a former school and district administrator. He is, perhaps, best known for his role in turning around Washington Prep decades ago, leading to a 1986 TV movie in which he was portrayed by Denzel Washington. McKenna has widespread name recognition in the district for his decades of experience.

Alex Johnson, 34, who finished second to McKenna with about 24 percent, is a former prosecutor, now an aide to LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He has some classroom experience, serving as an adjunct teacher in the Washington, D.C. public school system and as a lecturer at Lehman College in New York. At the start of the campaign, he was virtually unknown.

Both candidates have generated long lists of endorsements that include politicians and a variety of labor groups. Within LA Unified, the teachers union (UTLA) and the principals union (AALA) back McKenna; the service workers (SEIU Local 99) are behind Johnson.

Another big difference is financial backing. Through the weekend, Johnson had out-raised McKenna, $134,470 to $101,749, and held a big edge in money spent on his behalf by independent groups, $687,731 to $136,456. Befitting the usual chasm in LA Unified politics, a sizable portion of spending for Johnson comes from groups affiliated with the California Charter Schools Association, and almost all the outside spending for McKenna comes from teacher unions.

While both candidates have said they would not be beholden to any political groups or outside agenda, it’s unlikely to expect them to forget where their support came from when it’s time for the board to vote.

And that leads to what may be the ultimate impact of the election: Where does it leave a board that generally breaks along a union/reform fault line.

In the most general terms, union interests are reflected in votes by Monica Ratliff, Bennett Kayser and Steve Zimmer, with Tamar Galatzan and Monica Garcia more sympathetic to reform efforts. 

Board President Richard Vladovic, who has shown a distinct aversion to conflict in recent months, fills whatever middle there has been on a six-member board that records a 3-3 vote as failure.

Ratliff, Kayser and Zimmer have endorsed McKenna. Galatzan and Garcia have endorsed Johnson. Vladovic has endorsed no one.

A victory by McKenna would appear to give the pro-union side an unbeatable majority, rendering Vladovic’s vote moot on many issues and posing new challenges for Superintendent John Deasy, who is widely regarded as a leader for change and by unionists as an enemy.

A victory by Johnson would appear to bolster the reform side, returning Vladovic to swing-vote status and emboldening Deasy to hold stronger to his ideas. 

Certainly, Deasy’s employment — which the board can terminate at any time — would appear more secure with Johnson in the seat. McKenna has had problems with Deasy in the past — i.e. Miramonte scandal — but how he feels about Deasy’s performance as supervisor now is uncertain.

Both sides have talked about the importance of turnout, and that’s indisputable. District 1 has 342,493 registered voters, according to the city Ethics Commission. If only 5 percent vote — the most dire of predictions — that would mean a turnout of 17,124 and a majority needed for victory of just 8,563.

Whatever the turnout, voters at least won’t have to wait long before they get another shot. The election is only to fill the remaining months of LaMotte’s term, leading to next year, when the District 1 seat is up again, along with those for Districts 3 (Galatzan), 5 (Kayser) and 7 (Vladovic).

Previous Posts: Johnson campaign goes negative, citing the ‘myth’ of McKenna; Teachers go negative on Johnson, call him an education ‘rookie’; Johnson holding money lead over McKenna; Vladovic has donors

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