L.A. school unions back separate candidates in Board of Education race

Retired senior administrator George McKenna, backed by United Teachers Los Angeles, chats with Corri Rabare of the California Charter School Assn. at the district headquarters in January.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The two largest school employee unions in Los Angeles are on different sides of a key Board of Education race, as they maneuver for leverage over pay raises, job security and other matters.

United Teachers Los Angeles opted last week for retired senior administrator George McKenna.

Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, made up of most non-teaching employees, has chosen Alex Johnson, education advisor to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.


The two candidates will face off in an August special election to serve the last 10 months in the term of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December. The winner will be well-positioned to gain a full four-year term in elections next year for Board District 1, which stretches across south and southwest Los Angeles.

In the June 3 primary, McKenna finished a strong first with 44% of the vote. Johnson surged well past five others to finish second with 25%.

The endorsements are significant for both: McKenna is comparatively cash-strapped and could use money and ground troops from the teachers to get over the top; Johnson has assembled strong financial resources but must gain more ground with voters.

McKenna, 73, had to overcome some past clashes with the union. He oversaw the reorganization of Fremont High in 2010, which was ordered by then-Supt. Ramon Cortines. The district said it was responding to persistent low student achievement; teachers accused L.A. Unified of union busting at the politically turbulent campus. McKenna encouraged teachers to reapply for their jobs, but many refused. In the end, fewer than half returned.

That was hardly McKenna’s first run-in with teachers or labor over a long career. And it wasn’t lost on the Johnson campaign, which provided a detailed dossier as a reminder.

On other occasions, McKenna took the side of teachers. In 2012, he objected to a directive from Supt. John Deasy to replace the staff at Miramonte Elementary School after two teachers were charged with lewd conduct. McKenna did not make his disagreement public at the time but worked to address concerns of these teachers while they sat out the school year on an unopened campus.


“McKenna will stand up against decisions that are bad for students and employees,” union President-elect Alex Caputo-Pearl said. He also praised McKenna’s experience as an educator and the respect McKenna has achieved within the community.

“It’s gratifying,” McKenna said. “It affirms that teachers still believe that I’m their best advocate, and I have been for many years.

UTLA represents about 35,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians and psychologists. After temporary pay cuts and seven years without a raise, the union has demanded a 17% increase over two years. L.A. Unified countered with a one-time 2% bonus and a permanent 2% bump beginning in the fall.

McKenna has said teachers deserve more than L.A. Unified is offering, but he would not commit to a specific number until he reviews the budget.

The union, dealing with its own tight finances, now must determine how much is needed for McKenna to win. It also wants to save resources for 2015, when there will be elections to fill four of the seven board seats.

In the primary, the teachers endorsed three colleagues but didn’t financially support anyone. Together these candidates totaled about 19% of the vote. All have endorsed McKenna.


No candidate won the Local 99 backing in the primary.

That union represents about 33,000 custodians, cafeteria workers, teaching assistants, bus drivers and security aides — many of whom are also district parents.

About half make less than $15,000 a year; more than half earn less than $15 an hour. Many workers saw a reduction in hours during the recent recession.

The union is seeking a minimum wage of $15 an hour and, for better-paid workers, a 15% increase over three years — a proposal Johnson supports.

“No one should earn less than a living wage, and no one should be subject to the degradation of poverty conditions,” Johnson said. “And we can do something about it.”

Johnson “understands that it takes an entire team to deliver a quality education and has made solid commitments to ensuring that every child has the staffing and resources to learn in a clean, safe and supportive environment,” said union Chief Executive Courtni Pugh.
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