Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Election 2014: Former administrator, prosecutor head to LA school board runoff

Few south LA residents made it out to the Southern California Public Library to cast their vote. Many of those that did hadn't heard of candidates for the Los Angeles Unified school board.
Few south LA residents made it out to the Southern California Public Library to cast their vote. Many of those that did hadn't heard of candidates for the Los Angeles Unified school board.
Annie Gilbertson/KPCC

In a field crowded with candidates, no one garnered enough votes to win the open seat on the Los Angeles Unified school board Tuesday.

The top two vote-getters, George McKenna and Alex Johnson, with 44 percent and 25 percent of the vote respectively, will now compete in a runoff in August. The winner will replace Marguerite LaMotte, the South L.A. board member who passed away midterm.

"I think people see in me a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh perspective," said Johnson, 33, an education policy advisor to county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. During his campaign, he's advocated for increasing early childhood education and sending more money to the neediest schools — many of which are in the South L.A. district he wants to represent. 

A Los Angeles native, Johnson's resume is that of a rising political star. He had worked as a prosecutor and at the New York City Department of Education before joining Ridley-Thomas' politically-powerful team.

McKenna, on the other hand, has spent decades in Southern California schools, including working as a principal and  administrator at Los Angeles Unified as well as Compton, Pasadena and Inglewood districts.

“In expressing their confidence in my campaign for school board, the voters of District 1 sent a powerful message," McKenna said in a written statement overnight. "They said that experience matters and that they want a school board member who is ready to lead District 1 on Day 1."

He campaigned on a "zero tolerance for dropouts" policy. Only half of students in South L.A. graduate high school and thousands struggle to read on grade level. 

"How do we let them drop out? Are we not enraged by that?" McKenna said in an interview with KPCC last week

McKenna's campaign website funnels readers to a bio-pic starring Denzel Washington about McKenna's time as a South L.A. principal.

The pair beat out five other candidates, which included three teachers and even a reality TV show star. Each promised change it elected to represent District One, home to the poorest performing schools in L.A. Unified. 

But few voters were moved by the message. Less than 35,000  turned out to the polls, 10 percent of area voters. And by and large it wasn't the school board race that drew them out.

"I never heard anything about the school board," said Charles Manney as he walked into a polling station set-up at Southern California Public Library for Social Studies and Research in South L.A.  Manney said he was more concerned with the statewide candidates on the ballot.

But at least some of the candidates were working hard to change that Tuesday.

On five hours of sleep, Johnson spent the day urging people to vote, dropping by schools, grocery stores and restaurants. He managed to convince Deidra Foster.

"Sometimes when you shake somebody's hand, you feel their spirit," she said. "I'm just looking for someone who cares."

But Foster isn't likely to see much of Johnson's influence if he's elected: she is a parent of a student attending Today's Fresh Start, a charter school that is not overseen by Los Angeles Unified.

Jessie Sparks, a retiree, said she never misses an election, but as she walked into her poling place Tuesday, she wasn't sure who she'd choose for school board. The only name she recognized was McKenna's.

"I got to look when I get in here," she said.

United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed three candidates, none of which ended up in the runoff. 

But that's not to say the top candidates didn't have financial support.

As of last filing, Johnson's campaign contributions totaled $244,000, and McKenna's coffers reached $154,000.

UTLA-backed Sherlett Hendy-Newbill, came in a very distant third, with only 9 percent of the vote. 

Born in South L.A., Hendy-Newbill has been teacher at Dorsey High for over 15 years.

Her platform was popular among educators, promising to reduce class-size by hiring more teachers and bring back the librarians and counselors cut since the recession. 

But the union may come out in favor of McKenna or Johnson in the months leading up to the August 12th runoff - or forfeit influence on the seat, which for the last decade has supported labor causes.

Genethia Hudley-Hayes, the only candidate who had served on the school board previously, came in third in contributions, but forth in the polls, with 7 percent of the vote. She had raised $106,000 - $37,000 of which was a personal loan.

Hudley-Hayes taught at L.A. Unified for five years and spent another five as principal of a Episcopal school before moving into off-campus education stints both in publishing and nonprofits. 

Hudley-Hayes said she was disappointed days leading up to the election, where polls showed her trailing Johnson and McKenna. Rather than schedule a party, she said she'd be watching the results at home with her husband.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that George McKenna did not link to a bio on his website. KPCC regrets the error.