Pressure building: How, when to fill LaMotte LAUSD board seat*
Michael Janofsky | January 6, 2014
The sides are digging in.
With the holidays offering no break for the forces pushing to fill the vacant LA Unified school board’s District 1 seat, factions have firmly aligned behind US Representative Maxine Waters, for an appointment, and LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, for an election.
Whatever the six board members decide at a special meeting tomorrow night, the eventual replacement for Marguerite LaMotte, who died Dec. 5, will serve out a term that runs through mid-2015.
“A healthy debate underway continued over the holidays,” Ridley-Thomas told LA School Report. “That reflects the intensity of interest in the subject at hand, and that’s appropriate.”
It’s unclear what’s going to happen tomorrow, apart from a lively debate and comment from an unlimited number of speakers. The members could vote for an election or appoint a replacement right away. They could send the matter to a committee for further review. They could delay a decision, pending legal review of the options.
Resolution is further clouded by possible conflicts and scheduling issues involving the California Education Code, the Los Angeles City Charter, the city Election Code and LA County. So uncertain is the outcome that LaMotte’s successor could emerge as soon as tomorrow night through an appointment, or as distant as August 12, a date mentioned in a legal opinion from the county obtained by LA School Report (more on that later).
For now, the board appears split – with three members known to favoring an election – Board President Richard Vladovic, Tamar Galatzan and Monica Garcia — while Monica Ratliff and Bennett Kayser favor an appointment. Steve Zimmer has not declared a position.
Meanwhile, the lobbying and public-support building continues.
A coalition of organizations and individuals, led by Waters and her Congressional colleague, Karen Bass, has organized rallies, launched a website and circulated emails promoting George McKenna, a former administrator, for appointment to the seat. The surprise here is Bass. Last month she co-signed a commentary with Ridley-Thomas and City Council President Herb Wesson, urging the school board to choose a successor by election.
But in a statement four days later, she explained her change of heart. Noting the big issues looming for the district, she said, “These decisions will impact students—especially students from South Los Angeles—for years to come. Although I supported an election, it appears an election cannot be held in time for these important funding deadlines, and there is no way that District One cannot have a representative in these critical decisions.”
Bass’s change in position suggests that anything could happen — even an appointment who is not McKenna.
A petition drive has been underway for weeks to urge the board to consider Jimmie Woods Gray, a former teacher and UTLA activist. She would have strong support from the teachers union, UTLA, which might view McKenna less energetically because of his stated support for policy positions advocated by Superintendent John Deasy.
Those pushing for an election have been joined by six of the nine members of the California Legislative Black Caucus, who have circulated a letter urging the school board to hold a special election. The signatories include Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, the supervisor’s son, who recently won a special election for a seat in the state Assembly. A competing petition drive is also underway.
The pro-election forces may have gotten some encouraging news through Mark Ridley-Thomas, who asked the LA Board of Supervisor’s counsel’s office to analyze the options. In his response, County Counsel John Krattli said the school board has 60 days from the time the vacancy occurred to decide how to fill the seat, putting the deadline at February 3.
But without action by then from the board, the memo says “the county superintendent of schools must order an election” in accordance with the California Education Code and the California Elections Code.
Thus, any 3-3 vote that leaves the board deadlocked on appointment or election would default to an election.
The memo also says consolidating the election with the statewide election schedule for June 3 would pose an estimated cost of $623,000.
LaMotte, the only African-American on the board, held her seat for a decade, representing a district in which blacks now hold only a slim majority over a growing Latino community. The groups aligned with Waters and Ridley-Thomas are largely composed of African Americans.
No comparable coalitions have emerged from the Latino community.
*This version reflects a board decision today to remove limits on the number of people who can address the board prior to any action.