Why LAUSD's District 1 Race Between George McKenna and Alex Johnson Matters

Alex Johnson, campaigning for the LAUSD board, hopes to beat George McKenna for the District 1 seat.
Alex Johnson, campaigning for the LAUSD board, hopes to beat George McKenna for the District 1 seat.

What if they held an election and no voters came?

That's the very real scenario facing South Los Angeles next week, when voters decide who should replace the late Marguerite LaMotte on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

Their choices: George McKenna, 73, a longtime LAUSD administrator; or Alex Johnson, 33, a staffer for politician Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Some 640,000 people live within the boundaries of Los Angeles' school board District 1, the historic "black seat" on the seven-member school board. Of those residents, 341,601 are registered to vote, but just over 53,000 voted in the June primary — about 8 percent of residents in the area.

And that was for a primary election whose ballot also included mildly interesting battles for sheriff and governor.

Now it's the dead of summer, and there's just one question for voters: McKenna or Johnson? The winner could sail into this obscure but powerful job with 15,000 votes.

"That's not good for democracy at all," says L.A. County Democratic Party chair Eric Bauman.

That has led to much hand-wringing among the chattering class. A recent L.A. Times op-ed urged, "The LAUSD board election matters; voters should turn out."

But nobody's actually doing anything about it. The two candidates have not been pushed by any well-meaning group into having a single debate. And there is certainly no shortage of issues to discuss.

As a group, schools in District 1, which takes in most of South Los Angeles, have the lowest test scores and among the lowest graduation rates of any in Los Angeles.

In fact, south of the 10 freeway, between the 405 and 110 freeways, where most of District 1 lies, just one LAUSD elementary school — KIPP Empower Academy, a charter school — rated a 10 out of 10 in the state's academic rankings. KIPP children, 99 percent of whom are eligible for the school lunch program, excel in math, reading and writing when compared against all California schools with identical poverty and ethnicities.

But much of South L.A. is plagued by grade schools hovering near the bottom as compared with their California peers, ranked as 3 or 2 or 1 — meaning the students struggle to do basic math, reading and writing.

Johnson is far more bullish on charter schools than McKenna. "We need to make sure they're not just being held accountable, but make sure we're not demonizing schools that parents are voting for with their feet," Johnson says.

McKenna's message focuses more on seeing that District 1 gets its fair share of resources."We have schools where there's not a blade of grass on the whole campus," he says. "That's not an accident. Our district is seen as disposable."

Since the 1990s, nearly every LAUSD election has pitted the UTLA teachers union against reform movements that attract coalitions of various shapes and sizes led by business leaders, philanthropists and activists. The candidates may not explicitly side with either support group, yet they may still be showered with millions of dollars in campaign spending.

But this summer, that paradigm has softened a bit. For one thing, the three interest groups that have dominated board elections have all recently come under new leadership.

The teachers union has a new president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, a hard-liner who has pledged to fight Superintendent John Deasy's academic and fiscal policies tooth and nail. (Caputo-Pearl was removed from his teaching job at Crenshaw High School by Deasy when the entire failing school was "reconstituted.") He's been threatening a teachers strike, saying Deasy's proposed raise for them is not high enough.

Caputo-Pearl, however, finds himself overseeing a once-prodigious campaign war chest that's now rather diminished. Last year, UTLA spent millions of dollars on two elections. This year it has spent less than $100,000.

The other major union that influences the schools, SEIU Local 99, representing non-classroom employees such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, also has a new leader — and SEIU has decided to back Alex Johnson.

Under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, education reformers were in the Coalition for School Reform, Villaraigosa's super-PAC, which drew big donations from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and well-to-do local philanthropists such as Eli Broad and Megan Chernin (and most controversially, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation).

Without Villaraigosa, for whom education was a top priority, reformers are no longer united, and the money is no longer flowing like wine.

Johnson's biggest benefactor is his ex-boss, L.A. County Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. MRT, as some dub him, is one of the more powerful politicians in South L.A. He only recently stepped into kingmaking, last year helping get his 26-year-old son, Sebastian, elected to the California Assembly. Now he's trying to get Johnson elected to the school board, raising money and leaning on elected officials to endorse his former aide.

"He's a strong supporter, a strong endorser," Johnson says. "I'm happy to have his support. I appreciate his counsel. But he's not running the campaign."

McKenna, with no small amount of bitterness, says, "It's not Alex Johnson in this race. It's Mark Ridley-Thomas. Alex Johnson is a prop. This is all about Mark Ridley-Thomas and his ambitions."

In the seven-person June primary, Mc­Kenna, a popular and well-known figure in the black community, finished first with 44 percent and nearly twice as many votes as Johnson.

McKenna's ideology may not line up with the reformers', but his intense drive to fix schools just about does. "People used the word reform," McKenna says. "Well, I've been reforming schools ever since I left the segregated South."

McKenna worked in L.A.-area schools for more than half a century, first as an LAUSD teacher in 1962. In 1979, he became principal of George Washington Preparatory High School. The academic turnaround he led there was so rare and so comprehensive that his story was turned into a TV movie starring Denzel Washington.

The school board job is a powerful but generally thankless post: It pays just $45,000 a year, attracting bored retirees, the occasional altruist and people using it as a springboard into higher office.

The latter describes some of Villaraigosa's "reform" candidates, who were little more than empty suits picked for their loyalty to the mayor. Antonio Sanchez was a case in point. In an upset, Sanchez lost his 2013 East Valley race to Monica Ratliff, a political neophyte and teacher nobody had heard of.

When Johnson took up the reform mantle to run for the school board, some thought he'd be the unprepared, deer-in-the-headlights Sanchez all over again.

But Johnson is a bit older than Sanchez, and he has worked in and around the education world — before serving as Ridley-Thomas' education deputy, he worked in New York City's Department of Education, albeit as an attorney in the office of general counsel.

The two men might be interesting in a debate — if anyone in L.A. bothered to hold one in this big swath of the city, where the schools cry out for a public discussion.

McKenna says of Johnson, "I don't know what his qualifications are. He's running because it's a contest. I'm not running in a contest. I'm running for a commitment."

Johnson calls McKenna a man with "a long-standing record of being at odds with [Superintendent John Deasy], and is just going in there to re-litigate old battles with the superintendent. I'm trying to build a positive relationship. He's trying to settle old scores."


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >