The death this week of Los Angeles school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte will have immediate pragmatic and political implications for L.A. Unified, including the challenge of how to fill her vacant seat.
The veteran board member was found unresponsive in her San Diego hotel room and pronounced dead Thursday. She had been attending an education conference.
LaMotte, 80, was the longest-serving member on the current seven-person body, having won elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
Her seat, representing South and southwest Los Angeles, is scheduled to go before voters again in 2015. District officials said Friday the board has two options in the meantime: appoint a replacement or call a special election. The issue is likely to be taken up at a Dec. 17 special meeting.
L.A. Unified would have to bear the costs of a special election to fill out the final year of LaMotte's term. Based on figures from the county, the cost could surpass several millions of dollars.
A decision to appoint, on the other hand, would launch behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Either way, the outcome matters because whoever replaces LaMotte would automatically become the incumbent in 2015 — typically a powerful advantage in local elections.
LaMotte was a close ally of the teachers union, which has been sharply critical of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. In October, LaMotte was the only board member who voted to give Deasy an unfavorable job evaluation.
But she wasn't the only board member who has expressed personal or policy differences with Deasy, a situation that flared when Deasy twice threatened to resign this year.
Replacing LaMotte could strengthen Deasy's support on the divided board. On the other hand, LaMotte had not exerted a leadership role. A replacement board member who actively challenged Deasy, even part of the time, might prove more of an impediment to the activist superintendent.
LaMotte's seat has historically been held by an African American. She was the board's only black member, and local black leaders do not want to lose that representation in the school system. L.A. Unified is overwhelmingly Latino.
Of the remaining board members, two are Latino and four are white.
The nation's second-largest school system faced the death of a board member before, when Donald Newman, 54, died of a heart attack in 1976. At the time, legal advisors told district officials they were required to appoint a replacement. A subsequent lawsuit forced the board to conduct public interviews with the 10 finalists — 336 had applied.
Attorney Howard Miller got the nod and held the seat in the next election. But he didn't finish a full term either — falling victim to a recall election after unhappy voters faulted him over the forced busing of students to promote integration.
But those events occurred under the previous City Charter, and the rules have since changed.
The district had to fill a vacancy more recently when Jose Huizar won election to the City Council in November 2005, just months after being reelected to the school board.
The district held a special election in March 2006, followed by a June runoff, with Monica Garcia emerging as the winner. With LaMotte's passing, Garcia is now the longest-serving incumbent.