Inglewood school trustees decided this week to fill a vacancy on the board by appointment, but critics said they will try to force a special election.
The seat is especially important because the five-member board, highly politicized and divided in recent years, already has two new members who were elected in June.
The vacancy was created by the death last week of board Vice President Ernest Shaw, who was elected in 1985. At a special meeting Monday, trustees and audience members paid tribute to Shaw. Board President Lois Hill-Hale and trustees Caroline Coleman and Rose-Marie Benjamin then voted unanimously to fill the seat by appointment rather than by election, both of which are options under state law.
Both Coleman and Hill-Hale said Trustee Zyra McCloud had told them in conversations last week that she supported appointment rather than an election. McCloud had been out of town and returned too late to attend the meeting.
School activists and potential candidates for the post, however, also were represented.
Before the vote, several speakers urged the board to hold an election, which they said would be the most democratic way of filling the post.
"We all understand how political our city is," said W. R. (Tony) Draper, a former board member who was defeated for reelection in June. "We get into the politics in an election anyway, but at least it will let people participate in the selection process. To give four people the power to select the candidate is unfair to the citizens of Inglewood."
Draper, who also lost a bid for mayor last year, said he will run if a special election is held.
After the board's vote, leaders of several parent groups said they will start a petition drive to overrule the board's decision and force a special election.
Members of the Parents Take Action organization and the Unified Democratic Club of Inglewood contended that board members' various political agendas will dominate the appointment process. Frequent board critic Ben Howard charged in an interview that the three trustees who attended Monday's meeting already have specific candidates in mind and will only select a candidate who agrees to do their bidding.
Hill-Hale has said that she hopes to unify the board, but Howard said unity should be only one of many considerations.
"The needs of the people should be aired," Howard said in an interview. "The sole criterion should not be cohesiveness and unity. It's more important that the board member be accountable to the people."
The school district has a history of politically charged conflict and controversy. Critics have charged that Mayor Edward Vincent and Juvenile Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn wielded considerable power in the school system through a triumvirate of Coleman, Shaw and former board member William Dorn, Judge Dorn's nephew. School Supt. Rex Fortune was fired by that board majority in 1985, allegedly for resisting their influence, but he was rehired several weeks later after residents protested.
This year's elections blurred political lines somewhat, as McCloud beat Dorn and Draper lost to Hill-Hale, a protege of Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles). Hill-Hale was immediately elected president of the board and appears to have maintained cordial relations with Inglewood's political leaders and factions.
District lawyer Artis Grant Jr. said the board has 60 days from the date of Shaw's death, Sept. 15, to make an appointment. Voters then have 30 days from announcement of the selection to seek signatures calling for a special election. If they succeed, the appointee would serve until the election and would be permitted to run for the seat, Grant said.
The number of petition signatures submitted to the County Superintendent of Schools must equal 1.5% of the number of registered voters in the district at the time of the last school board election, Grant said. According to a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar of voters, the number of registered voters in the June 16 runoff election was 45,207, putting the required number of signatures to force an election at 678.
Board members denied that they are already grooming candidates and said that appointing a replacement is the quickest and cheapest alternative.
"It's an open process," Benjamin said, pointing out that an election would cost the financially ailing district $65,000. "We just balanced our budget and made $2 million in cuts. We have to think about the effect on our students."
Hill-Hale said she hopes that the vote on a new trustee will be unanimous. Responding to protests at the meeting, she said, "The main reason for our decision is that we need a full complement of board members in order to assure that our policies are administered. I think we'll get great candidates."