Flashback to 2014: After the sudden death of LAUSD Board Member Marguerite LaMotte (BD1), the Board debated whether to hold a special election or make an appointment to fill the seat so that families in South LA would not go for months without any representation.
Bennett Kayser, who held the seat in Board District 5 before Ref Rodriguez defeated him, was a staunch supporter of an appointment. He argued that a special election would cost too much: “For two to three million, how many librarians could we bring back? How many nurses?” he asked.
Also favoring an appointment was George McKenna, who was not yet on the Board but who was willing to accept the appointment to the seat himself – a move that was supported by prominent lawmakers such as Congresswomen Karen Bass and Maxine Waters.
The head of the United Teachers Los Angeles union at the time, Warren Fletcher, also supported an appointment, as did his successor, Alex-Caputo Pearl, whose name was also floated as a possible appointee for the seat. “We share the community’s concern that students and parents in District 1 will be voiceless as these crucial votes are taken,” Fletcher said.
Unfortunately, the City charter in 2014 only allowed for two options: the appointment of a voting member to fill out the entire term or a special election. Some members wanted to make sure voters would decide. But then-Board President Steve Zimmer advocated fiercely for a third way: the appointment of an interim Board member to represent constituents only until a special election could be held.
“I am rarely as adamant about something as I am about this,” Zimmer said. “I favor interim voting representation.”
LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist also supported the idea but advised Zimmer and the Board that the City charter did not allow it. It’s just not right, Holmquist said in 2014, that existing laws keep the District 1 board seat vacant until after a special election, denying families equal representation for months.
Fortunately, as a result of this 2014 debate, the City of Los Angeles in 2015 changed its charter to handle just such a situation that we face again in the wake of Board Member Ref Rodriguez’s (BD5) resignation. The charter was changed to allow for the appointment of an interim voting member to fill out the term until a special election is held and a new member is elected.
“We reached out to the city and asked for them to make this change,” Holmquist told Speak UP. “I assume the fact that we had that meeting, and our Board expressed that desire, and we heard from the constituents that they wanted that…I believe that was the basis for the change.”
Given that the City charter was changed specifically to deal with just such a situation, it makes sense that Board leaders Monica Garcia (BD2) and Nick Melvoin (BD2) are now advocating for the Board to avail itself of this option. And given McKenna’s prior support for his own appointment, it seems unlikely that he would oppose a path that would allow for BD5 families to be represented until an election is held.
“I think that’s wise, and I think you’ll see our Board follow that,” Holmquist said. “Based on what happened with Ms. LaMotte and that situation, I would expect our Board to look first to have a special election scheduled as soon as possible. I would expect our Board would take that up at the first business meeting in August when they come back together, and I would imagine they will have a conversation about filling an interim and getting a Board member in so the constituents can be represented.”
The primary election would likely be held in March and the runoff in May of 2019, Holmquist added because some of the cities in BD5, such as Huntington Park, have county elections in March, making that the best time to maximize turnout. It would be almost impossible to hold the election in conjunction with the November midterms because the filing deadline is Aug. 11, and the LAUSD Board is not scheduled to meet again before then. Many members are on vacation, and Board Member Kelly Gonez (BD6) is on maternity leave.
Given an extended 8-to-10-month period until an election is likely to be held, and critical decisions about district restructuring that LAUSD’s new Superintendent Austin Beutner is expected to make, Speak UP strongly supports a temporary appointment to fill the seat in the interim.
Support appears to be widespread across the ideological spectrum for just such a move. Both reformers, such as Melvoin and Garcia, and union-backed members, such as McKenna, are on record in favor of making sure constituents do not go without Board representation for a lengthy period, which could lead to gridlock on decisions affecting every Board member’s district.
It would take a Board majority of four votes to approve a plan, as well as to appoint an interim member. Given that no ideological faction dominates the Board following the Rodriguez resignation, any appointee would have to be a consensus pick supported by both union-backed Board members and reformers.
The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, which did not acknowledge that the City Charter had changed in response to the LaMotte situation in its recent editorial on the topic, argued that an appointee would carry an unfair advantage of incumbency. Holmquist, however, rightly points out that incumbency is not always an advantage in L.A. school Board races. The Board could also select an interim member who publicly avows no intention to run for the seat next year. But unless the appointee lived outside the district, nothing would prevent an appointee from changing his or her mind and deciding to run at a later date, he said. The only certainty, Holmquist added, is the Board must decide what to do within 60 days of the Rodriguez resignation so we’ll know the path forward by late September.