L.A. school board

Community activist Morris Griffin, right, voices his support for the appointment of Dr. George McKenna to replace Marguerite LaMotte at the Los Angeles Board of Education district headquarters this month. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / January 7, 2014)

This post has been corrected.

The Los Angeles teachers union was notably absent in the debate this week over replacing Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, reflecting a difficult situation for United Teachers Los Angeles.

The union, embroiled in its own internal elections and facing financial pressures, put no discernible pressure on board members in advance. This silence surprised some observers because LaMotte, who died in December, was a staunch union ally and the Board of Education is sharply divided on key issues affecting teachers.

Notably, LaMotte had been the only board member to give a negative annual evaluation to schools Supt. John Deasy, a frequent target of union criticism.

The issue of replacing LaMotte came down Tuesday night to two choices for the school board. They could appoint a replacement to fill the remaining 18 months of her term or call a special election.

The contention was vigorous among black elected officials and others, who regard the holder of LaMotte’s District 1 seat as the unofficial guardian of black students in the nation’s second-largest school system. That seat has been held by an African American for decades.

In advance of the meeting, a sizable group of black community leaders coalesced around appointing retired senior administrator George McKenna.

Eventually, the board opted for a special election by a 4-2 vote, which prompted a response from union president Warren Fletcher.

“While we wait for the election, the school board will be making critical decisions on school funding, technology, and more,” Fletcher said in a written statement. “We share the community’s concern that students and parents in District 1 will be voiceless as these crucial votes are taken. That said, we look forward to working with parents and the community in supporting a candidate who will represent the area with passion and purpose, as Marguerite LaMotte did for so many years.”

Fletcher’s comments suggested he would have preferred an appointment, but he did not publicly express a preference; other union leaders, including Fletcher’s rivals for president, spoke more assertively prior to the school board’s decision.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, who noted that he is a District 1 resident and parent, called for an appointment. He didn’t criticize McKenna but suggested that other choices should be considered, including Jimmie Woods Gray, a veteran teacher and union officer who also serves on the city’s Board of Fire Commissioners.

Another candidate for union president, Gregg Solkovits, pressed the case strongly for Gray.  

Both Caputo-Pearl and Solkovits are current union officers. Union vice president M.J. Roberts also spoke in favor of an appointment.

Also participating was Dorsey High teacher Sherlett Hendy Newbill, who said, before the board’s decision, that she intended to run for LaMotte’s seat in the regularly scheduled 2015 election. After the announcement she said would run in the special election. Newbill is co-chair of Dorsey’s union chapter.

McKenna also plans to run, as does former school board president Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who lost the District 1 seat to LaMotte in 2003.

The union had been LaMotte’s primary financial backer in previous contests, but a special election could put a strain on union finances, which have been hurt by membership numbers that have declined sharply even though all L.A. Unified teachers must pay union dues.

The decline was fueled by dropping student enrollment, the growth of non-union, independently managed charter schools and the national recession, which led to layoffs. Now, the union faces two election cycles in LaMotte’s district over the next 18 months.

The union’s own election will commence Feb. 25, with ballots mailed to about 31,584 voting members. Besides teachers, United Teachers Los Angeles represents nurses, counselors and librarians.

[For the record 5 p.m. PDT Jan. 13: An earlier version of this post reported that union vice president Roberts endorsed the appointment of McKenna. She favored an appointment, but did not endorse a specific individual.] 

ALSO:

Jahi McMath body in 'very bad shape' after hospital transfer

Report calls L.A. a city in decline, warns of crisis in leadership

Deputies seize guns and white supremacist material in Littlerock

Twitter: @howardblume

howard.blume@latimes.com