Two candidates with different styles and viewpoints are vying to join the Los Angeles Unified school board, replacing longtime board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December. Both of the candidates also hold different beliefs than did LaMotte, who was a fiery opponent of most school reform.
This is an opportunity for voters in District 1, which includes South Los Angeles and sections of West Los Angeles, to make themselves heard. That's especially true, sad to say, because voter turnout on this one-race election day, Aug. 12, is expected to be below 10%. The only good thing that can be said about such low participation is that those who do turn out to vote will be making their ballots count.
When they do, a strong choice for the job is retired L.A. schools administrator George McKenna, who won national attention and praise for reforms he instituted during the 1980s as principal of one of L.A. Unified's high schools, George Washington Preparatory High in Westmont. Thirty years later, McKenna continues to come across as someone whose first consideration is helping kids learn, especially socioeconomically disadvantaged students who for too long have been shorted on classroom space and qualified teachers.
McKenna hasn't always been a successful administrator — his tenure as superintendent of the Inglewood schools was marked by fiscal and other problems that were addressed too slowly — but we think his well-thought-out positions will serve him well as a school board member.
McKenna's opponent, Alex Johnson, also talks about putting students first. But Johnson, an avid reform candidate and education aide to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lacks the depth of educational understanding that McKenna would bring to the board. Johnson tends to phrase his concerns in generic political terms rather than thinking through his positions and backing up his assertions with facts.
It's encouraging to see that both candidates support the continued leadership of Supt. John Deasy, who has been a positive force for the school district. McKenna is more likely to question Deasy's proposals when he feels the superintendent is heading in the wrong direction, but he made it clear to the editorial board that he hopes Deasy will continue in the job through the expiration of his contract in 2016. Given Deasy's occasional tendency to make bold moves too hastily — including his original proposal to purchase more than 600,000 iPads — it's a good thing if board members are willing to challenge him when necessary.
Ideology holds little interest for McKenna. As a board member, he is likely to consider each issue on its individual merits rather than follow pre-set allegiances. We trust him to ask serious questions and vote for common-sense solutions.
On Aug. 12 — which is also the first day of school — voters should remember that this year, there's another important part of the day. They should show up at their polling places to help shape the district's future.