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L.A. Unified names caretaker for vacant board seat

Sylvia Rousseau will oversee the post left vacant by the death of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte until it can be filled by an election. Critics say Rousseau's selection in a closed-door meeting lacked transparency.

February 18, 2014|By Stephen Ceasar and Howard Blume
  • Sylvia Rousseau, standing in front of a mural at Crenshaw High School in 2009, will be a caretaker for the Board of Education seat left vacant by the death of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.
Sylvia Rousseau, standing in front of a mural at Crenshaw High School in… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday appointed a former district administrator to oversee the seat left vacant by the death of member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte in December.

In a closed-door meeting, the board selected Sylvia Rousseau, a USC professor and former local superintendent in L.A. Unified, to be a liaison to the board until a special election is held in June.

The 5-0 vote was taken in public, following the private meeting, L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist said. Board member Monica Garcia was absent.

The move came a week after a divided board could not agree — in a public meeting — to appoint a caretaker for the seat. Holmquist said the board had previously decided to discuss the issue in public, but because it is a personnel matter, they were permitted to discuss it in private if they chose to do so.

Board member Tamar Galatzan said she proposed that Rousseau take the position in the closed session Tuesday because it was the most expedient way to begin the process. But she also said that it was a personnel appointment that is commonly discussed in private meetings.

"We've had ample time to debate this in public — more than any issue I've been involved with my entire time on the board," Galatzan said.

But member Steve Zimmer, who had tried to persuade his colleagues to approve a caretaker last week, said that although he felt Rousseau was an exemplary choice for the position, he wanted the appointment to be made in public.

"This was not the level of ... responsibility nor the transparency that I hoped for," Zimmer said.

Scott Folsom, a member of the district's bond oversight panel and a close observer of L.A. Unified, said that the district skirted its responsibility to the public by appointing Rousseau out of the public eye.

"I do not see how the community in that district — the students, parents and teachers — were engaged in this process," he said. "The district is being represented, but it's not being represented by anyone they chose."

The district's lawyers have said that a caretaker cannot attend closed session meetings or cast votes.

In a statement, Jefferson Crain, the board's executive officer, said that Rousseau will give the board and Supt. John Deasy updates on issues relevant to the schools in the area.

The district will begin negotiating a contract with Rousseau for the job and the board is expected to approve the contract at a meeting in early March.

Rousseau said in an interview that the lack of an advocate on behalf of the students compelled her to express interest in the position.

"I was disappointed when we didn't have an appointee to the board initially and time is moving quickly — there are important decisions to be made," she said. "I just stepped up. Someone needs to be defining the issues and bringing them to the board's attention as we go through this period without representation."

LaMotte represented District 1, which stretches across much of South and Southwest Los Angeles. She was the board's only African American member and held a seat that has been occupied by black elected officials since it was established.

How to handle the vacancy became the subject of intense debate within the black community, with many advocates concerned that key decisions loomed as the seat remained unfilled until the results of a special election.

Rousseau made for an acceptable compromise choice in part because she is not overly identified with a variety of polarized factions, Zimmer said.

"She brings a level of both academic and experiential qualification that stands apart from any of the controversy," he said.

Galatzan said that although board members have disagreed greatly on what the exact job would be, they compromised on bringing in someone of Rousseau's caliber to bridge the gap until a new board member is elected.

"We found someone who knows the board district and can really be an asset to us until the permanent board member is elected," she said.

Deasy declined to comment on the appointment, but said Rousseau has an unbelievable record of leadership in the district. "I could not have more respect for her," the superintendent said.

Rousseau has no known plans to run for the seat and also stayed out of the fray about whether a successor should be appointed or elected to fill the remainder of LaMotte's term.

Aside from her work with the district and at USC, Rousseau has long ties to South Los Angeles and the Crenshaw High School community in particular.

After years as a teacher in L.A. Unified, Rousseau served as an assistant principal under LaMotte at Washington Preparatory High School.

She left to become principal of Santa Monica High in 1993 and then returned to L.A. Unified, serving as local superintendent between 2001 and 2005.

In 2011, Rousseau returned to serve as principal and school reform adviser at Crenshaw High. A group of veteran Crenshaw teachers credited Rousseau at the time for her efforts to boost the perennially low-performing campus.

But senior district management concluded that the short-term progress was insufficient; Rousseau was encouraged to make way for another principal. Last year, Deasy decided to reshape the school entirely, with a largely new faculty.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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