By Radhika, LAUSD community member.
May 1st Candidate Forum: LAUSD School Board District 1 Special Election.
I was a fan of the late Marguerite LaMotte, whose sudden death forced a Special Election. Of all LAUSD School Board Members, she was the most fearless in her advocacy for the children of District 1. I am a former Adult Education teacher in LAUSD. I am a Progressive. I am also a BAT. I wanted to learn more about the seven candidates vying to fill her seat.
This event was sponsored by the South Robertson Neighborhood Council and the League of Women Voters. The Forum was well attended, 300 or so. Many were children, brought by their activist moms and teachers. They sat by school and stood and cheered when their school got a shout-out from the moderator. Castle Heights! LACES! Johnny Cochran!
I sat, I listened, I even submitted a question for the panel. Here’s my take-away, FWIW.
Media frames this as a 2-person race: Alex Johnson (former Prosecutor now senior aide to Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas) vs George McKenna, retired LAUSD Principal, community favorite. Both have organized bases, solid fundraising and high profile endorsements. But I heard so much that I liked from some other candidates, I hope some outliers can get the visibility and money they need to at least force a runoff and lay some groundwork for 2015. That’s when this seat AGAIN comes up for a vote. Yeah, efficiency.
Alex Johnson is not an educator. He’s minted for a career in electoral politics, and has access to MRT’s powerful network. When asked how he’d expedite the removal of bad teachers, he urged the state Legislature to approve Assembly Bill AB215. He emphasized school safety and more mental health services. How would he deal with LAUSD’s turbulent Board? He gave examples from the courtroom. If he could persuade the jury, he could persuade other Board members. I wonder how he’ll persuade the powerful financial and cultural elites that pull strings behind the curtain.
George McKenna surprised me. He came across as strategically folksy, almost wishy-washy. I sort of expected a stand-and-deliver type. That low-key no drama approach seems to be working for endorsements. He’s the middle way, the facilitator. When asked, McKenna noted no serious problems with the Superintendent Deasy beyond his handling of the Miramonte scandal. He considers teachers more important than technology. He suspects the new pricey tablets just keep kids occupied. He’s fine with charters, public, private or religious schools – whatever. Teacher raises are fine, assuming accounts are in order. Privatizers are free to exhale.
Three candidates are endorsed by United Teachers of Los Angeles (Hattie McFrazier, Sherlett Hendy Newhill and Rachel Johnson). All were or are LAUSD teachers. Newhill and Johnson were the clearest and most direct when responding to questions about Superintendent Deasy and his costly, clumsy and questionably-funded i-Pad project. All were focused and knowledgeable about curricula, technology and showed some of the spunk I valued in LaMotte. Newhill forcefully noted that the current Board has failed in its oversight: It ‘bowed down’ to Deasy, even though he reports to the Board and should take direction from them. Johnson essentially made the same point: the current Board has not held Deasy accountable. Rachel Johnson is concerned by the glut of charters in District 1. She would not approve new charters unless and until every possible support and remedy was given to the neighborhood school. They all want more raises for teachers and more funding, including Title I enhancements to schools in need. McFrazier urged more arts and music. A fourth UTLA candidate, reality TV personality and substitute teacher Omaroso Manigault did not get an UTLA endorsement.
We have just witnessed a perfect example of the uselessness of UTLA . The union endorsed three candidates drawn from their own ranks: McFrazier, Newhill and Rachel Johnson. These candidates got nothing from that endorsement that I can see. They all languish near the bottom in fundraising. High profile politicos and non-profits aren’t endorsing any of them. I don’t know what’s happening on the ground in District 1, but buzz isn’t rising up for any of these candidates. With 45,000+ teachers in LAUSD, why such dismal fundraising results? UTLA has been MIA in LA’s power politics for years. Now that UTLA President Warren Fletcher is out and leadership transitioned to Alex Caputo-Pearl, let’s hope the union can start to show some clout.
No one was willing to directly critique Common Core State Standards. It’s still a cloudy issue — with factions on the left and right pushing back from different sides. Comeback-seeking former Board member Genethia Hayes was a tad confusing here. She kept referring to the long-standing A-G Curriculum Requirement mandated to enter the UC System. That’s different. CCSS is a standards, testing and technology approach to education that begins in kindergarten and absorbs billions of public funds. It’s all tied up with corporations, software and mandated testing.
Title I funding formula? Should teacher ratings be tied to student scores? Layoffs based on seniority? Class size? Not sure I heard anything dramatically different or cogent there, but to be fair only 90 seconds were allocated to reply.
Who would I pick? I don’t live in District 1, so I don’t get a vote. I wouldn’t presume to tell the people of District 1 what they should or shouldn’t want for their community. Based on what I heard on May 1st at Hamilton HS, the candidates who seem most in line with MY preference for true public education are Sherlett Newhill and Rachel Johnson. Either long-shot candidate may be a lost vote strategically – let’s be honest – but YOLO. Good luck to the families of District 1.