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L.A. School Board Race May Actually Be Riveting

The LAUSD marching band: soon to be trudging to a different beat?
The LAUSD marching band: soon to be trudging to a different beat?

People of Los Angeles: brace yourselves for the first LAUSD board election of the post-Villaraigosa era. 

For years, school board elections have featured two big-monied behemoths slugging it out: UTL, the powerful teachers union, and the "school reformers," a varied collection of educators, well-to-do businessmen and activists who favor charter schools, teacher evaluations based on student test scores and making it easier to remove bad teachers from classrooms

But a special election June 3 to replace LAUSD District 1 board member Marguerite LaMotte, who passed away last year, is shaping up to be a different animal altogether. Meaning, this could actually be interesting. Really! 

At stake is the LAUSD board's political balance, currently dominated by independents who like the headstrong reformer, Superintendent John Deasy, but want to keep a handbrake on his ambitious agenda.

The board includes only two died-in-the-wool school reformers, the Eastside's Monica Garcia and neighborhood crimes prosecutor Tamar Galatzan. Their reform push was fought by two hardcore teacher unionists, LaMotte out of South L.A., and Bennett Kayser, still on the board. The biggest subgroup is three hard-to-define independents who shift between the two sides - the Westside's Steve Zimmer, longtime teacher Monica Ratliff and former LAUSD administrator Richard Vladovic, the current president. 

George McKenna, whose legendary turnaround of a terrible high school became a TV movie.EXPAND
George McKenna, whose legendary turnaround of a terrible high school became a TV movie.
Courtesy of Campaign Website

People trying to win LaMotte's poor-paying yet powerful post on June 3 include two wild cards: Omarosa Manigault, the star of such reality TV competitions as The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice; and, perhaps most intriguingly, George McKenna, former principal of George Washington Preparatory, deep in gang country near 108th Street and South Normandie Avenue.

McKenna's turnaround of that sad school was legendary -  People magazine wrote that as principal, McKenna "transformed one of L.A.'s most badly blighted high schools into an inner-city American dream." He was immortalized in a made-for-TV movie starring Denzel Washington.

McKenna, who is black (like all all of the candidates for this seat, as was LaMotte), comes out of the Richard Vladovic mold - old, stubborn, and iconoclastic. Insiders consider him the frontrunner.

"I'm not in anybody's group," McKenna says. "I take it one issue at a time." 

LaMotte represented much of South L.A., where Deasy pursued tough reforms at some of California's lowest-ranking schools, and publicly praised Watts mothers who used the California Parent Trigger law to shove out a principal at failing Weigand Elementary School.

LaMotte was Deasy's harshest critic. By far. Now she is gone.

She may be replaced by McKenna or someone else who is more amenable to Deasy, who's determined to turn LAUSD, which has improved but has a ways to go.

McKenna thinks Superintendent Deasy has "tried to do the best he can with what's available," but thinks that Deasy overreacted by removing the entire teaching staff of Miramonte Elementary School after news broke that teacher Mark Berndt had sexually abused as many as 100 students there over many years (McKenna was the "local" superintendent of the sprawling section of LAUSD in which Miramonte was located).

Students For Education Reform placed 375 school desks in a DTLA street to shame LAUSD's board over the 375 L.A. students who drop out weekly.
Students For Education Reform placed 375 school desks in a DTLA street to shame LAUSD's board over the 375 L.A. students who drop out weekly.
Calvin Alagot

McKenna is also skeptical of Deasy's $1 billion plan to provide every student and teacher an iPad filled with academic interactive content, and to equip every school with broadband wireless internet.

"What are we supposed to get out of that?" he asks. "They may be obsolete in a few years."

He has, pointedly, refused to say whether or not he would extend Deasy's job contract.

"I wouldn't vote against him or for him - I don't have to," he says. "I just don't have an opinion as a private citizen. And why is that important? John Deasy works for the school board, and anything he does has to be approved by the school board. I would be holding him accountable. I'm not there to get rid of John Deasy. I think he's smart, aggressive, courageous in many ways."

That stance seems to have been good enough to earn McKenna the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, which places a premium on keeping Deasy in L.A. 

But where L.A.'s schools head next also depends on the actions of the weakened teachers union, which has split its endorsement across three candidates: Dorsey High School teacher Sherlett Hendy-Newbill, Gardena City Council member and teacher Rachel Johnson and retired teacher/counselor Hattie McFrazier. 

That may seem a weird union strategy - isn't the point to pull voters toward one candidate? - but it worked last year when Monica Ratliff, who shared a UTLA endorsement with another candidate, upset Antonio Villaraigosa's pro-reform candidate, the unprepared Antonio Sanchez.

"Each of those teachers have a legitimate constituency within UTLA," says Brent Smiley, vice chair of the union's Political Action Committee. "Any of these three would make a fantastic representative of kids in board District 1."

On the union ticket neither Newbill, Johnson or McFrazier has raised very much money - but then neither did the last winner, Monica Ratliff.

McKenna speaks plainly about the teachers union, saying, "I think sometimes they are overly aggressive in their rejection of new ideas, but right in their protection of teachers ... They need to be more focused on what' s good for kids, as opposed to the adult issues."

The late Marguerite LaMotte, left, and her colleague Steve Zimmer in 2012EXPAND
The late Marguerite LaMotte, left, and her colleague Steve Zimmer in 2012
Hillel Aron

The reformers - and, more importantly, their campaign contributors - are also split between candidates: former LAUSD board member Hudley-Hayes and Alex Johnson, the 33-year-old ex-staffer to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Hudley-Hayes and Johnson have been bickering since the start of the race, when the Alex Johnson campaign accused Hudley-Hayes of lying on a resume, claiming she had a doctorate from American University, and an MBA. According to her campaign overseer Parke Skelton, the Johnson campaign first brought that dirt to Skelton, hoping to quietly muscle his candidate, Hudley-Hayes, out of the race.

"Never having been blackmailed like that, we released the stuff on our own," says Skelton. "I don't understand what the controversy was all about."

Hudley-Hayes says one of her old resumes contained two typos - she has an honorary doctorate from American World University, not an earned doctorate from American University.

"In all honesty, that was my fault not to correct that," says Hudley-Hayes. But, she adds, "I think that when you decide that you're going to begin a campaign with character assassination, that makes me nervous." She insists she has an MBA, but that can't be verified.

Hudley-Hayes is backed by former mayors Richard Riordan and Villaraigosa.

 

The current majority on the board basically likes the reform-minded Deasy, but may quietly be paving the way for his eventual demise.

One defining moment came last October, during a bizarre and widely reported stand-off between the mixed-bag board and Deasy, who effectively runs LAUSD but reports to the seven elected board members - and can be fired by them any time.

Deasy had apparently threatened to resign due to the board's micromanaging of his administration. That would have been a seriously black eye for the school board because Deasy, though hated by the UTLA teachers union, is a fairly popular figure, especially among the L.A. political establishment that thinks he can save the schools.

In the end, Deasy chose to stay, and his contract was extended into 2016 - with one proviso: he'll no longer be evaluated solely by "student achievement," which includes such things as student test scores and graduation rates.

Instead, he'll be tasked by the school board with increasing enrollment in LAUSD by 5 percent a year (and other measures, such as how well he "communicates" with the seven board members).

That's a tall order: between 2009 and 2013, enrollment shrank 11 percent. L.A. families are fleeing the district, heading for both the proliferating local charter schools and even to other, more academically advanced, districts. 

Another powerful interest group, SEIU local 99, which represents the schools' non-classroom service workers, is also sitting out the race - at least until the runoff. A runoff will be scheduled for August 12, if, as is highly likely, none of the candidates for LaMotte's seat win 50 percent of the votes on June 3. 

That probable runoff will be an orphan election with nothing else on the ballot, This means turnout could be pathetically low. We're talking like 7,000 voters, or even less, deciding a post that affects the education of one in every ten children in California - the 600,000 kids who attend LAUSD.


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