The special election for LAUSD School Board District 1 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte is less than a month away. However, the battle lines for choosing her successor were clear within days of her death: They are, Big money versus what’s best for District 1’s students, parents and residents.
Reflective of the difference between opposing sides is the amount of money already raised by Alex Johnson, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ candidate, and George Mc Kenna a grassroots candidate. Johnson raised $113,000 in the first reporting period, many contributing $1100, the maximum allowed- and he will get a lot more from political action committees (PAC) and IEs (Independent Expenditures) that have no limit on the amount they contribute to a campaign. This was predictable given the Supervisor’s ties to big money in Los Angeles and beyond. McKenna raised half that amount.
Shortly after Ms. LaMotte died, the Supervisor began lobbying school board members and other elected officials, urging them to oppose an appointment and support a special election to fill La Motte’s seat. He did this knowing full well a special election would leave District 1 without representation for possibly up to nine months; it would have no vote in the upcoming months on crucial issues, including the $7 billion construction bond, the billion dollar iPad deal, Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Common Core Curriculum. The board’s decisions on these issues could effect the way LAUSD is administered and funded.
The school board’s decision not to appoint someone was reprehensible because it automatically left District 1 without a voice at the board table. (Dr. Sylvia Rousseau is the board-appointed liaison for District 1. The position is no substitute for a board member, but Dr. Rousseau called together a broad cross-section of the community, including parents, educators and clergy that crafted recommendations to the board on key issues for District 1, including funding, curriculum and language acquisition.
Ridley Thomas’ strategy to prevent an appointment was clear. He proclaimed,” An appointment violated the people’s constitutional right to vote.” At first glance, that seemed plausible, but actually, it was disingenuous because he knew a special election, in this case, would leave District 1 without the Constitution’s fundamental right to representation. Apparently, getting his top education staff person elected was more important than the community’s right to representation. Could it be the Supervisor didn’t want to risk the likelihood of someone other than Alex Johnson being appointed, thus diminishing, if not killing Johnson’s chances of winning the seat in the next regular election in 2015? Unfortunately, many individuals and groups, including elected officials, bought the Supervisor’s contrived argument that an appointment would deprive them of their right to vote. Arguably, coupled with Ridley Thomas’s undue influence on a divided six-member school board that helped prevent an appointment. So, his man became a candidate in the District 1 special election. June 3rd, and the community’s right to representation be damned.
Dr. George McKenna’s superior qualifications for the District 1 seat have never been challenged, even by Ridley-Thomas, whose sole stated reason for choosing Alex Johnson is ‘youth.” Since Mr. Johnson’s supporters mirror the Supervisor’s chant, the question for them and the Supervisor is: Is youth always the best choice….even if the person is not qualified? Can anyone seriously argue that the board of education of the nation’s second largest school district is the place for on-the-job training?
Some years ago, as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ridley Thomas met periodically with then superintendent of the Inglewood School District, Dr. George McKenna and myself- a school board member in Inglewood at the time- to discuss ways to improve educational outcomes for all students, Black students in particular. Back then, the Supervisor was vehemently against self-serving, big money interests controlling schools, politics, or anything else.
Curiously, although education is its stated priority, the Supervisor’s annual Empowerment Congress conference has not had an education workshop in the past two years even though his candidate, Alex Johnson is also his top education person. What’s happening…. Could education be really more a rhetorical than actual priority for the Empowerment Congress and the Supervisor? (Money is the mother’s milk of politics but it also corrupts.)
As mentioned earlier, George McKenna’s qualifications to represent District 1 are outstanding and broadly acknowledged, even by his opponents. Unfortunately, politics and big money often trump the issues; McKenna is countering that with a strong community-based campaign. District 1 (like all others) cannot afford to have an election controlled by special interests. Effective moral and ethical leadership is what it needs more than anything else and George Mc Kenna has these qualities.
The special election (June 3rd) is a rare opportunity to elect a person who possesses the qualifications to meet the challenges of District 1’s exceptionally diverse but, systemically disenfranchised neighborhoods. Hopefully, voters will prevent big money- from any source- to dictate the outcome of this critically important election. Students’ best interests are best served by strong, effective and caring leadership. Money, big or small, is always a secondary consideration in the continuing struggle to properly educate our children. .