There's been an empty seat on the Board of Education since South Los Angeles representative Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte died unexpectedly last month. On Tuesday, board members are expected to decide how to fill her spot.
Their options are straightforward: The board can appoint someone to fill out the remaining 18 months of LaMotte's term. Or it can leave the spot vacant and let voters pick her replacement in an election several months from now.
Nothing's ever that simple, though, in this fractured school system; politics and personal agendas have already begun to intrude.
LaMotte was the school board's only black representative. Her district includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and lowest-scoring schools.
A retired high school principal, LaMotte won all three of her elections with teachers union support. She was more firebrand than brain trust; an old-school educator with disdain for charter schools and corporate-led reforms, and tough-love passion for her "babies," particularly black students.
LaMotte was the only board member who gave Supt. John Deasy an "unfavorable" job rating — instead of "satisfactory" — in his evaluation last fall.
She may not have been a leader on the board, but her voice was hard to ignore. The superintendent has a chance now to get rid of that pebble in his shoe.
So I wasn't surprised to hear that Deasy is soliciting black civic leaders to form an advisory committee to deal with issues in LaMotte's South Los Angeles district. I expect they will be folks who — unlike LaMotte — support Deasy's reforms.
The superintendent isn't the only one with a stake in her replacement.
The teachers union stands to lose if the balance of power on the school board shifts. I expect behind-the-scenes maneuvering to advance a candidate that's as reliable a supporter of union positions as LaMotte had been.
Black political leaders see possibilities in a new board member that go beyond school safety and test scores. The school board has been a traditional launching pad for ambitious politicos. I predict that politicians will soon be grooming LaMotte's prospective successors and planning their election night parties.
Then there are the community groups that have become a potent force that's helped steer the district's agenda. Groups like the Community Coalition forced the district to reduce student suspensions, helped pass last year's ballot measure preserving school funding, and persuaded skeptics to support the iPad project, despite its bungled rollout.
"We had young people walking precincts for Proposition 30," said the coalition's Executive Director Marqueece Harris-Dawson. Now, with LaMotte gone, they are concerned that their schools won't have a vote when the money is divvied up.
Expect to see them at Tuesday's board meeting, lined up alongside the politicians, civic leaders and union advocates.
According to my colleague Howard Blume, the school board seems inclined to leave LaMotte's seat open and hold an election; at the earliest, this spring, at the latest, in November.
It's a nice idea, in theory: Let the voters decide.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who lives in LaMotte's district, said: "I'm not about to let someone elected by other parts of the city choose who will represent my interests. The only legitimate, fair, time-tested way to do that is through an election process."
But that's a bad idea in practice. It risks shortchanging vulnerable children at a pivotal time.
"We can't wait until April or June to represent them, when there are so many critical decisions the board is making now," said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who initially supported an election.
Spending several million dollars on an election also ignores the realities of Los Angeles' dismal turnout. Less than 13% of registered voters bothered to cast ballots in 2011, the last election LaMotte won.
That's not letting the people decide. That's capitalizing on apathy in a race in which big money, big names and slick campaigns can trump good ideas.
The school board has serious decisions to make in the next few months — about school funding, teacher evaluations, technology use, class size, salary increases and state testing.
I've seen how hard LaMotte fought for her students over the years. It would be wrong to leave them voiceless at this juncture.
Fortunately, there's no shortage of qualified contenders who understand the circumstances, challenges and needs of students and teachers in South Los Angeles.
Former school board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes has declared her intention to run for the seat or accept an appointment. She's a civil rights advocate and reformer who represented the district admirably before LaMotte ousted her in 2003.
Community groups have begun rallying around retired district administrator George McKenna, who spent much of his career as a teacher and principal in South Los Angeles, and had a movie made about his success when he ran Washington High.
He's a great leader with bold ideas and a passion for children. And he's no pushover. I think that's what the school board needs — even if it's not what its members want.
Either of them would be better than waiting, which preserves an empty seat, while candidates hold fundraisers and kingmakers battle.