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 district until a special election is held in June.
The 5-0 vote was taken in public after the private meeting, said L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist. 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 closed session if they chose to do so.
Board member Tamar Galatzan said she proposed that Rousseau take the position in the closed session Tuesday morning because it was the most expedient way to begin the process. But she also said 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 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 a caretaker cannot attend closed-session meetings or cast votes.
In a statement, Jefferson Crain, the board's executive officer, said 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 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 had 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 the 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.