Los Angeles Unified Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, perhaps the strongest ally for teachers on the school board, has died.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner's office said paramedics pronounced LaMotte dead of natural causes at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Marriott Hotel, where she was attending the California School Boards Association conference. No autopsy has been ordered.
LaMotte, a former junior high and high school principal, was first elected to the school board in 2003. She easily won re-election in 2007 and then again in 2011.
LaMotte was 80. She did not appear sick, but had taken a medical leave of absence in 2001, before retiring as a principal.
“The loss is very profound. It’s profound on a district level, a family level, and a personal level,” said school board member Steve Zimmer.
He said it hit him particularly hard because LaMotte took him under his wing in 2009, when he was newly elected to the school board. At that time, both were part of a minority on the board elected with teachers' union support.
He called her a “very revered matriarchal figure” in L.A. Unified’s education community.
Reaction from Los Angeles' political community was swift Thursday. Mayor Eric Garcetti called LaMotte a "trailblazer who dedicated her life to Los Angeles schools."
"She was a good friend, and my wife Amy and I offer our deepest condolences to her family, colleagues and all of those who were touched by her tireless work on behalf of L.A.’s students," he said in a statement.
"There will just be a loss for the entire community," Los Angeles City Councilmember Curren Price, who had known LaMotte for a decade, said in an interview.
“She was able to connect with people and she spoke her mind. I think it was that kind of straightforwardness, frankness and candor that certainly won her a lot of respect,” he said. “She probably had her share of detractors because of that, but on the whole I think she was well received.”
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.
“We have cut so deep now that we are at the marrow and the bone and I don’t know if we have anything else to cut,” she said during a board meeting two years ago where layoffs were proposed, turning her ire on then-superintendent Ramon Cortines. “And I told you the last time, superintendent, we can’t cut anymore.”
Among the split board, she was a vocal critic of current Supt. John Deasy's policies. She cast the lone vote among the seven-member board not to renew his contract in October.
But Deasy had nothing but kind words for her in a joint press release with board members distributed by the district late Thursday afternoon. He called her “a fighter for civil rights and for quality education.”
Educated in segregated schools in Louisiana, LaMotte broke barrier after barrier. She earned a masters degree and taught at Louisiana State’s school of education within a year of the Civil Rights Act's passage in 1964.
“She came of age during the Brown vs Board struggle,” said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, “and understood the issues of segregation and carried that as a charge to make sure that equal opportunity was afforded to every child.”
She began working as a substitute teacher at L.A. Unified schools in 1973. For almost three decades, LaMotte worked as a teacher and principal at predominately African American schools and as a school district regional administrator. She often talked about students as her “babies.”
She wound up representing many of her schools when she was elected to the school board in District 1 - which stretches from the Palms neighborhood in West Los Angeles to Leimert Park and parts of South L.A.
LaMotte was a longtime advocate for arts education and lashed out against charter schools, the intervention of former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in school board politics, and the way former board president Monica Garcia pushed reform policies.
On Thursday, Garcia said the tough talk didn't carry into their personal relationship.
“Sometimes when we had a moment amongst ourselves, she would share that there has been a long battle for Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte,” Garcia said.
Former teachers' union president AJ Duffy says her loss will be felt politically – especially as the union and board get ready to negotiate a new contract.
“UTLA is in a bind because they feel they want a raise and they want to lower class sizes by bringing teachers on. It’s going to be very interesting without her voice in the room,” Duffy said.
According to the Los Angeles City Charter, the Board of Education may choose someone to fill the vacancy or hold a special election. The board has canceled its meeting next week and plans to reconvene on Dec. 17th to discuss LaMotte’s open seat.