Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte was for the last several years on the losing side of the Los Angeles Unified school board. Her strong alliance with United Teachers Los Angeles and her dislike of most charter schools and of various reform efforts were at odds with where the board was headed under the heavy influence of then-Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa.
It took just one turnover of a board seat — from reform-oriented Nury Martinez, now a councilwoman, to more independent-thinking Monica Ratliff, a lawyer-turned-L.A. Unified elementary teacher — to change all that. Suddenly, when it came to questioning Supt. John Deasy and challenging his proposals for everything from buying iPads to spending the new money coming to the district from the state, LaMotte had plenty of allies on the board.
LaMotte, whose death was reported by The Times on Thursday afternoon, will be missed as a fierce champion of directing more resources to the largely black and Latino students within the district she represented. She understood the community well, though she differed sharply with the reform movement about the best ways to help that community. In recent weeks, she at times seemed confused about exactly what was being proposed or discussed, but to her credit, she wasn’t afraid to ask the questions it took to find out. In most cases, she could be counted on to have a strong opinion — and to voice it.
But those who cheered her occasional outbursts on the dais against charter schools and standardized tests might have many more reasons to miss the woman who often referred to students as her “babies.” What one change of board member wrought this year could happen again, if a reform candidate ultimately replaces the feisty board member from District 1. It’s a good bet that wealthy pro-reform figures — including Eli Broad and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who donated heavily to back reform candidates in the most recent election — will be trying hard to gain this seat, not that their efforts were very successful in the last round.
Less clear, though, is whether a change in a single seat would have the same effect this time around. Board President Richard Vladovic, who was at first a Villariagosa pick and a fairly reliable reform vote, has switched to a more independent role. And Steve Zimmer, whose stances vary depending on the issue at hand, has seemed more comfortable lately joining forces with those who have challenged Deasy.
The loss of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte might lead to closer votes on the board. But for a long time, her unwavering and outspoken commitment to teacher protections, to funding public schools more generously and to challenging charter schools more vehemently will echo in people’s minds if not their ears. No matter which way the education winds were blowing, her opinions were deeply rooted and unabashed. It’s easy to imagine board members thinking of her and what she would be saying about any of the issues under discussion. There will be little need to guess.