The passing of Los Angeles Unified School Board Member, Marguerite LaMotte two weeks ago on December 5th (on the same day as the passing of Nelson Mandela), has thrown the Los Angeles African American community into a tailspin not seen since Congressman Julian Dixon died suddenly in December of 2000. The ugliest side of politics (and there are a lot of ugly sides to politics) is watching the political maneuvering that takes place when somebody drops dead in office. This has been BUTT ugly…Gorilla face ugly…snaggle toothed grill ugly.
At least when Julian Dixon died, the community paused and mourned—in respect of his widow, Betty—and waited until after he was buried to discuss his replacement. But once he was buried…it got ugly. It generally does when the community doesn’t have a leadership succession plan. In the instance of Ms. LaMotte (God rest her soul), she hasn’t been lied to rest yet. In fact, the emails starting flying the next day. It was like vultures diving in on the perished. No respect for the dead, no dignity for the deceased and no shame about grabbing up the goods.
Like taking a wallet off a dead man, the “goods” in this instance is LaMotte’s “District 1” seat. The battle for control of the seat has brought out the kingmakers, powerbrokers, has-beens and wanna-bes. And everybody got a position that they’re peddling. The children that LaMotte represented come up as an afterthought, or as a pivot to a preferred position.
Like I said, it’s ugly.
Now before I go all in on this, I want to disclose that I have no “preferred position.” I haven’t endorsed one position over another (though one makes more sense to me than another) and have avoided (declined) invitations to the planning (more like plotting) meetings that occurred over the weekend-in anticipation of the December 17th LAUSD Board meeting to discuss replacement options. The options are; 1) an interim appointment until the term expires in 2015, or 2) hold a special election in the Spring of 2014—and then have to come back a year later for a regular election. One side wants to represent it as an “empowerment issue” (which is a soft argument). The other side wants to represent it as a “cost issue” (a very real argument).
What would it cost the students of the 1st District (in terms of millions of dollars and key policy votes) to have that seat sit vacant until the special election occurs. Ms. LaMotte couldn’t have passed away at a worse time (there’s never a good time for death—the unexpected being what it is), as LAUSD is in a power struggle over resources, pedagogy and practicum that threatens to set the course of the district for the next two decades. Or longer. There are some vultures around the board shoe (Monica Garcia being one of them) that wouldn’t give a damn about the interests of a vacant seat. She’d take her cut and our cut too. And many of us know that.
Why give them a chance to do that over a “philosophical” position?
Here’s the reality: Self-determination is a philosophy that can be enacted in several forms. Terms like “empowerment” are broad and cut different ways. I’m as “pro self-determination” as the next person (probably more). But if we’re going to determine something, why not determine how the hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent in the first six months of 2014? Why not protect the District 1 cut and make sure the resources aren’t raided as our empowerment desires play out to hold an election—which is really about people wanting to control that seat for the long term play. Forfeiting resources doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s put me at odds with some friends but I agree don’t agree with anyone 100% of the time.
I was a supporter of Ms. LaMotte 90% of the time, but we disagreed (in this column) about more Charter schools, testing (and firing) poor teachers and a black male academy—all things that go directly against the interests of UTLA. Ms. LaMotte was a UTLA backed board member, and the union runs the board. But she was an ardent defender of the interest of black and poor children, whom she called her babies. So, we agreed where we could agree.
That was the political reality. Now let’s understand what’s really at play…
The person most being mentioned is a perfect fit for an “interim” appointment. He’s a life long educator, a reformer, understands LAUSD, been on the inside as an administrator and understands black education issues. He also understands schools and district waste. He’s vocal and unafraid. He would be an excellent watchdog of community interests until the next term. Now, if he’s the long term—that’s would be a mistake because then the community would be in the same position it’s in now—death is inevitable. But our interests would be protected in the short term. That would be the play…but it would require giving up the seat to board appointment consideration, and it’s not guaranteed that the board would go with the community choice.
If that’s the fear, then you weigh the costs. It still costs the community more to have nobody in the seat than it does not to have its preferred choice—which is an unlikely scenario because of the scrutiny on the seat.
What should be a no-brainer, has become a community divider because of the faulty “self-determination” argument. Timing is everything and the timing of the special election undermines the community’s economic and programmatic interests. Plain and simple.
That’s not conjuncture. That’s fact.
Now that the LAUSD board has punted the decision into 2014, the case for an appointment only becomes stronger. We should shift our self-determination agenda toward making sure whoever is appointed, understands that is a short term play (interim) and that the district’s economic and policy interests are met.
Finally, for a board that acts as irrationally as LAUSD’s does, I think they did the right thing—to postpone a decision until after Ms. LaMotte’s burial. It shifts the focus back on her, her legacy and what she tried to do for the children—the lost factor in this whole conversation.
Rest in Peace, Ms. LaMotte. Hopefully, the conversation will shift back to your babies.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.