George McKenna, left, was a popular choice to replace, by appointment,… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
After listening to hours of public testimony Tuesday evening, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to call a special election to fill the seat of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died last month.
The vote followed a spirited debate both within the board and among community members. At one point, board member Steve Zimmer proposed defying legal advice and appointing a replacement until a special election could be held.
But in the end, a board majority sided with legal counsel in determining that they had but two choices. The final vote was 4 to 2, with Bennett Kayser and Monica Ratliff dissenting. Ratliff said she still was willing to take a chance on Zimmer's approach.
The board action also requires a report next week on whether an appointed caretaker could represent District 1 until LaMotte's successor takes office.
In recent days, elected officials and community activists have been split over whether the board should leave the South Los Angeles seat open until a special election could be held, probably in June, or appoint a replacement until the regular election for the seat in 14 months.
Those aligned with the appointment option included U.S. Reps. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and a coalition of black community groups. They would have liked to see retired L.A. Unified School District administrator George McKenna hold the seat. McKenna said that he would also be interested in running for the post.
Those who favored an election included Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson. An election would best respect the democratic process, Ridley-Thomas said.
Going into Tuesday's meeting, board members also were split on the issue: Kayser and Ratliff have leaned toward an appointment, while Richard Vladovic, Tamar Galatzan and Monica Garcia supported an election. Zimmer was undecided the first time the board took up the matter in December.
LaMotte, 80, had been the longest-serving among the seven members on the current board, first winning election in 2003. She died Dec. 5 while attending a conference in San Diego.
More than 100 signed up to speak at the rare evening meeting.
"I rise as one ripple in a sea of many community voices" in support of McKenna, said local Episcopal Bishop James B. Walker. It's vital, he said, to avoid a break in representation during a crucial time: "Please do not take the 1st District from Ms. LaMotte to zero."
UCLA professor Tyrone Howard called McKenna qualified and "a dear friend," but said, "If he's going to do it, he should do it the right way."
He added: "The vote is the proverbial equalizer."
Those who spoke in favor of an appointment overwhelmingly favored McKenna, but it was not unanimous.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said earlier Tuesday that he believes the seat should not be left open too long but declined to express a strong preference: "I think I would very respectfully say to the Board of Education: This is your decision, but keep in mind what's best for the children in South Los Angeles who will go unrepresented if we don't do this swiftly."
LaMotte's successor could play a vital role on a board sharply divided on key issues, including the direction of the school system under Supt. John Deasy.
LaMotte was closely allied with the teachers union, which has criticized Deasy. Her successor could therefore strengthen Deasy's support on the fractured board. Or, a replacement who actively challenged Deasy might prove more of an impediment to the activist superintendent.
Deasy last week invited prominent District 1 residents to be part of an interim advisory committee. But this effort, and Deasy's choice of members, were criticized by some speakers.
Even before the decision of how to handle the open seat, two contenders emerged this week ready either to run or accept an appointment: McKenna and former school board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes. Hudley-Hayes decided not to attend the meeting; McKenna briefly addressed the board, stating his willingness to serve.
Hudley-Hayes, 68, served one term on the school board, ending in 2003 when she lost her reelection bid to LaMotte. More recently, Hudley-Hayes served eight years as a fire commissioner, including seven as commission president. She also served as a special trustee assisting Compton College in its efforts to regain accreditation. She first came into public prominence as the Los Angeles head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In her first school board race, she enjoyed strong support from both the teachers union and local philanthropists, but the union switched to LaMotte four years later.
McKenna, 73, retired in 2012 after three years as a regional superintendent of an area that spanned much of South L.A. He had served in a similar capacity for two years starting in 2000. McKenna also worked six years heading the Inglewood Unified School District.
His greatest fame, perhaps, comes from a movie, "The George McKenna Story," starring Denzel Washington, that depicted his turnaround efforts at Washington Preparatory High School from 1983 to 1988. LaMotte later became principal at the school.
Political activist Jimmie Woods Gray also has expressed interest in the seat. Another possible candidate is Alex Johnson, an aide to Ridley-Thomas. Johnson is "still in the exploratory stage," said Fred MacFarlane, a political advisor to the supervisor. Ridley-Thomas has yet to announce his preferences.
All of the potential candidates are black.
LaMotte's District 1 stretches across a diverse swath of South and southwest L.A., over which black voters historically have been the most influential. That seat has been held by an African American since the Board of Education first was divided into geographic regions in 1979.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this story.