Community Organizing May Trump Politics for L.A. School Board Seat

The December holiday season is traditionally a sleepy time for news, even sleepier for local politics; November and June are the two electoral poles around which most such activity happens. But every journalist knows that critical moments observe no holiday and know no season.

For the last three weeks, a grassroots campaign to appoint veteran administrator/education activist Dr. George McKenna to the LAUSD school board seat vacated by the sudden death of Marguerite LaMotte has gained traction at a rate I've never seen before in any campaign, political or otherwise, mounted by black folks. The pace of black politics is glacial, so to say that the momentum building up in this effort is unprecedented is not a stretch. And it's not over.

Let's review: LaMotte, 80, died unexpectedly early last month. She had represented District 1 on the board for sixteen years, which made her its senior member. She was also the board's only African American, and a clear advocate for the well-being of black students whom she fondly called "her babies."

The death of a school board member or any elected official usually results in a special election to fill the seat, which the remaining six members of the board can certainly decide to do. It can also decide to appoint someone to the seat to serve the rest of LaMotte's term, which goes until June 2015, at which point a regular election will happen. Nobody opposes an election.

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What ignited the pro-appointment campaign, and the appointment of McKenna specifically, is concern that a special election would mean a vacant seat for at least six months -- crucial months in which the board will make budgetary, standard curriculum, and other decisions in which all districts should be at the table, especially the needy schools that comprise District 1.

The campaign is stumping for McKenna because, it says, he is the most qualified candidate who has extensive administrative experience in the district, and his passion for public school improvement is well-known. Plus he's available to do the job. It doesn't hurt that McKenna is known even in Hollywood; a young Denzel Washington portrayed him in a 1986 movie based on McKenna's years as a reform-minded principal at Washington High School near Athens in South Central. The ultimate L.A. credential.

But the Black Community, Clergy and Labor Alliance, the organization that initiated the campaign (and of which I am a member), says McKenna's most impressive credentials are his educational record and his track record of commitment to urban schools. Nobody in black circles argues this. Nobody doubts that McKenna would be the best advocate for black students, and for all students. But education, like so much else, is political.

From practically the moment LaMotte died, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has pushed for an election so that he can run his staffer, Alex Johnson, for the seat. A Ridley-Thomas-backed candidate has the funds and political power to easily defeat just about any challenger, especially in so short a time frame. Several other black electeds, including Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Karen Bass, initially agreed with going the election route, maybe not so much out of support for Alex Johnson -- a virtual unknown -- than out of a sense that an election was the most democratic option. Let the people decide, and all that.

Remarkably, thanks to the pro-McKenna campaign, they and other black elected officials have changed their minds: Waters, Bass, and many other pols and a host of black organizations and notable figures are now firmly on the side of appointment. What's encouraging about all this is that a good percentage of influential black people are leading not with political loyalties, but with concern about what actually might be best for students. What a concept.

Ridley-Thomas, famous for his recalcitrance, is not budging, which puts him in a rare and unenviable position of being the top black elected official in the county -- in the state -- who is facing open opposition, in some cases defections, from other prominent blacks on a matter he probably thought was a shoo-in. The school board is holding a special meeting this Tuesday night at 6 p.m. to vote on what to do about the seat in District 1. BCCLA and its stalwart ranks of pro-McKenna-appointment forces will be there in number. Should be an interesting evening.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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