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L.A. school board will decide in January how to fill LaMotte seat

A portrait of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died this month, stands near the doors to the school board meeting room at Los Angeles Unified headquarters.
A portrait of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died this month, stands near the doors to the school board meeting room at Los Angeles Unified headquarters.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday postponed deciding how to fill the seat of school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died earlier this month.

Three members wanted to delay the discussion, while three wanted to take up the issue immediately.

“Not taking an action is an action,” said Monica Garcia, who wanted the board to discuss whether to appoint a replacement or call a special election. “We are delaying the opportunity for representation.... There needs to be a conversation.”

Postponing the calling of an election into January could delay any vote until after March.

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Joining Garcia in backing an immediate decision were board member Tamar Galatzan and board President Richard Vladovic.

But four votes were needed to move forward, and the other members sided with those attending the meeting who advocated for a delay until after LaMotte’s funeral.

The board tabled the discussion until Jan. 7, scheduling a special meeting for that purpose.

Before the meeting and in public testimony Tuesday, advocates pressed either for an immediate approval of a special election or a delay.

A group led by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) insisted that waiting until after the funeral would be in keeping with African American customs and would respect the grieving process of the family and community.

LaMotte was the only African American on the seven-member Board of Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her seat has been held by black officials since the school system first divided into election districts in 1979.

Opting for an election on a fast timetable -- in March, for example -- could make it difficult for candidates to assemble campaigns. Postponing the election could result in LaMotte’s seat being vacant for much more of the remaining 18 months of her term.

Whatever the case, holding an election would leave LaMotte’s seat unfilled for about three months to a year, depending on the scenario.

In contrast, an appointment would give LaMotte’s district a voice right away on key issues. Critics of that approach, however, say it would result in other board members selecting an ally rather than letting voters make their own choice.

Whatever option is chosen, the office will go before voters in a regular election in 2015.

Waters declined to specify Tuesday how LaMotte’s seat should be filled, but an alliance of which she’s a part has called for an appointment. More than 200 members of this coalition, representing more than 30 groups, met Sunday at the First AME Church. At that meeting, there was strong support for naming retired senior district administrator George McKenna to fill LaMotte’s term. But other names have surfaced as well, including that of Alex Johnson, an aide to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

LaMotte was closely allied with the teachers union and frequently critical of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. Broadly speaking, the meeting at First AME drew many of LaMotte’s supporters, who hope a successor will maintain her politics. They said a fast election process would aid critics of LaMotte, who could raise money for a campaign more quickly by drawing on wealthy backers of Deasy.

But former backers of LaMotte also include Ridley-Thomas, who called on the board to schedule an election.

“People fought, bled and died to assure that we have the right to vote,” Ridley-Thomas said. “This is about self-determination.”

In an interview, Ridley-Thomas said it was premature to discuss what potential candidate he would support.

LaMotte’s District 1 stretches across a diverse swath of south and southwest L.A. Black voters are not a majority, but they are the largest voting bloc. The holder of that seat has been regarded, especially in the black community, as the particular guardian of black students, many of whom have struggled in the nation’s second-largest school system.

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Twitter: @howardblume | howard.blume@latimes.com


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