A New Fight in Los Angeles to Fill a Vacated School Board Seat, After a Swing Vote Resigns Following Plea Deal

Los Angeles Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez at his arraignment last fall. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report

The ouster of Los Angeles Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez — who resigned Monday after pleading guilty to money-laundering charges — means the remaining board members must now decide when and how to replace him.

They have 60 days to decide a path forward, and the clock is ticking.

Right now, board members have three options, said LA Unified’s general counsel David Holmquist: They can appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Rodriguez’s term; they can call for a special election, which would likely be held next spring; or they can do both, appointing someone to serve until an election.

Given the timing, it’s unlikely the board could hold a special election in November. The filing deadline to get that on the upcoming ballot is Aug. 11, and the board isn’t even scheduled to meet for its next voting session until Aug. 21. The board could call for a special meeting sooner than that, but a more practical option may be to call for a special election in March.

Also, in order to hold a special election, the board has to submit its request to the Los Angeles City Council and receive its approval, Holmquist said. That would almost certainly rule out a November election.

The rules governing school board elections are outlined by the city charter, but the law doesn’t prescribe a particular process for deciding on a temporary board member, Holmquist said.

What is clear is that four of the six remaining members would have to agree on the appointee.

In a joint news release, board president Mónica García and vice president Nick Melvoin said they want to call “as soon as we can” for a special election and work to appoint a board member to serve in the interim.

United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union, didn’t challenge that plan, though it demanded “transparency in the process” in a statement released this week.

The LA Times editorial board chafed at the idea of an appointment, however, and made a case to let voters pick the next board member. That’s the way it was done when former LA Unified board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte died unexpectedly in 2013, and that’s the way it should be done now, they argued. Besides, if the board appoints someone, that person would have an incumbent’s advantage in the next election, they wrote.

A similar situation played out two years ago in San Diego Unified, when a school board member pleaded guilty to accepting illegal gifts and was forced to resign. Remaining board members appointed an interim trustee who went on to win the seat outright in the next general election.

In that situation, however, the power dynamics were different: It was labor-backed board members who made up the board majority. LA Unified’s school board is now viewed as generally split between labor and reform-minded members.

Along with UTLA’s demand for a transparent process moving forward, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl said Rodriguez’s votes on 4-3 decisions should “be reconsidered or thrown out completely” — including Rodriguez’s vote to start the hiring process for current superintendent Austin Beutner.

Holmquist, however, said that scenario is unlikely.

“Rodriguez was lawfully seated and voted in by his electorate. Unless a judge would determine otherwise, I don’t know how those votes could be thrown out,” Holmquist said.

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