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UPDATED: Special election to determine who fills Marguerite LaMotte seat on LA school board

A memorial image of Marguerite LaMotte on display at the board meeting Tuesday.
A memorial image of Marguerite LaMotte on display at the board meeting Tuesday.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

The Los Angeles Unified school board’s six elected members voted Tuesday night to call for a special election in June to fill the board’s seventh seat, now empty by the sudden death in December of Marguerite LaMotte.

“There’s a line in the Declaration of Independence that said that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed and I think that’s what we’re really doing here. We are supporting the residents and constituents of board district one,” said board member Tamar Galatzan, who proposed the special election.

The decision came after three hours of public comment by nearly 100 speakers and another hour of debate among board members.  The board voted down proposals to postpone the decision and appoint an interim board member until regular election failed.

The election will cost the school district as much as $2.5 million if no single candidate takes a majority of the vote and a second, runoff election needs to be held in August, according to the city clerk. A single election will cost $973,000.

The board did direct legal counsel to report back on its options to appoint someone to fill the seat temporarily.

The decision went against the majority of the dozens of people who filled L.A. Unified’s board room. They spoke in support of appointing former school district administrator George McKenna, a friend of LaMotte, to fill out her term through next year.

Speakers included some of the region’s most prominent African American leaders.

“I think of an appointment of a person in this position would be most appropriate at this time,” said former L.A. Unified board member Rita Walters, who was elected to the board in 1979.

Former Los Angeles councilmen David Cunningham and Robert Farrell agreed.

“We don’t want our community to go without. There’s so much need, so many decisions you’ll need assistance for,” Cunningham said, referring to upcoming school district budget deliberations.

RELATED: LA school board to debate filling LaMotte's seat

This large coalition of African American leaders has been organizing in the weeks after LaMotte’s death around the appointment of McKenna.

“I am here as your colleague, as your employee in this district for over 32 years,” said McKenna, a former principal and area administrator. “The community has asked me to be of service.”

LaMotte represented school board district 1 on the school board for 10 years. With strong support from the teachers union she unseated Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who’d won the seat with backing from then L.A. mayor Richard Riordan.

LaMotte was a staunch supporter of teachers - taking a strong stand against layoffs - that won her fans in United Teachers Los Angeles. The teacher's union and SEIU were her strongest backers.

The seat has been held by a black woman since 1979, but the South L.A. district is now majority Latino - a community that is likely to draw support for its own candidate.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was the most prominent supporter of a special election.

“Voters matter, they are important in this process,” said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “District 1 must have a champion for its children and its families. A champion that can effectively deliver results.”

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy sent a letter to twelve prominent African American leaders on Jan. 3, inviting them to join a District 1 advisory committee he’s created to give him “information, advice, and direction” until a board member is chosen.

After public comment, board member Bennett Kayser moved for the board to appoint a replacement for the seat but that motion failed on a 3-3 vote.

Board member Steve Zimmer then submitted a motion to call for a special election and also appoint an interim school board member.

The school district’s top lawyer, David Holmquist warned board members that city law that governs board member succession precludes the board from taking both actions.

Zimmer’s proposal failed on a 4-2 vote.