The recent debate over a vacancy on the L.A. Unified Board of Education highlighted the changing demographics of South Los Angeles, and the concern in the African-American community is about losing political clout.
When school board member Marguerite LaMotte suddenly died this month at the age of 80, the African-American community lost its sole representative on the seven-member school board. Last week, the board debated whether to appoint an interim member or hold a special election to fill the term that expires in early 2015.
Whatever the board decides, there’s one thing to keep in mind, notes Melina Abdullah, chair of Pan-African Studies at Cal State L.A.
"District one, since 1979, has been represented by African-American women – and African-American women educators," she says.
Abdullah points out that LaMotte followed in the footsteps of former Congresswoman Diane Watson and former Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes. But the district’s South L.A. neighborhoods are changing. The 2011 Redistricting Commission reported that while half the voters in LaMotte’s district are African-American, about half its students are Latino. Similar demographics were the backdrop in an L.A. City Council race this year in which an African-American candidate, Curren Price Jr., fought off a challenge from a Latina, Ana Cubas, for a long-held black seat.
At LAUSD, Abdullah said, LaMotte was seen as a representative for African-American students beyond her own district.
"We're talking about one seat out of seven," Abdullah says. "That person really has to have an understanding and a love and a passion for African-American children. And District One, let me be clear, is not only black children, and Ms. LaMotte didn’t just love black children and didn’t just care about black children; however, she did understand that she was the sole representative of black interests on the school board."
Districtwide, African-Americans make up 10 percent of the student population. Speakers who attended last week’s board meeting to discuss just how the now-vacant seat should be filled drove that point home.
“It’s important that when families and children turn to this board for guidance and aid, they see leadership and advocates, quite frankly, who look like them," said state Sen. Holly Mitchell, who was there to represent the Legislature's Black Caucus.
"As you well know, statistics tell a dire story about LAUSD’s black student population. We must harness every available tool to write a better educational narrative for our children. One that fully taps the African American experience, informing the curriculum and culture with the best we have to offer," Mitchell said.
The Board of Education will reconvene on Jan. 7 to decide how it will proceed.