Seven vie to replace McKenna on L.A. school board

By Ray Richardson

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Whoever replaces George McKenna on the seven-member board of the Los Angeles Unified School District will inherit the seat of an educational icon and the challenge of maintaining stability in District 1.

McKenna’s upcoming retirement, capping 62 years of service in the Los Angeles school system, signals the probability of significant changes in educational policies in a district with a heavy population of Black Latino students.

“This is a critical time for African Americans in regards to who fills that seat,” Robert Sausedo, president and CEO of Community Build Inc., said of the District 1 race. “The candidate of choice has to be someone who is not ambivalent about the past and respects the work that’s been done. The person has to build on what’s been done and be able to move forward with innovative ideas relative to this century.”

Seven candidates believe they fit that mold and have the capability to finish what McKenna started during his 10 years representing District 1 on the LAUSD board.

There is also a sentiment among the candidates that they can provide a “new voice” to connect better with the district’s communities, which include South L.A., Baldwin Hills, West L.A., Koreatown, Mid-City and other nearby areas.

The candidates range from a city of Los Angeles custodian to educators with at least 30 years experience in the city’s school system.

At the top of the list might be Sherlett Hendy Newbill, who currently works as McKenna’s senior aide. McKenna has endorsed Newbill. So have the Los Angeles Times, county Supervisor Holly Mitchell and Rick Chavez Zbur, chair of the California Assembly Democratic Caucus.

Despite the apparent strong support, Newbill, 51, is running her campaign as if she’s an unknown candidate.

“It’s gratifying to know I have some momentum, but I still intend to do everything I can to reach people until the last vote,” said Newbill, a former girls basketball coach and athletic director at Dorsey High School. “I want to expose to people that I’m a viable candidate who knows what it means to be a board member.”

The other six candidates are Kahllid A. Al-Alim, 56, a custodian for the city of Los Angeles who has raised nearly $700,000 in his campaign bid for the seat; Christian Flagg, 34, director of training and advocacy work for Community Coalition; John Aaron Brasfield, 41, a security staff member for LAUSD; DeWayne Davis, 54, an educational consultant with 30 years of experience in the L.A. school system; Didi L. Watts, 52, chief of staff for District 7 board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin; and Rina Tambor, a real estate manager and volunteer tutor.

Newbill and Watts have attended numerous LAUSD board meetings with their respective supervisors, McKenna and Franklin. Both have insights to the inner workings of board meetings that could give them a slight advantage over the other candidates.

All the candidates face the challenge of getting enough votes March 5 to avoid a runoff in November. If none of the candidates earn more than 50% of the votes, the top two finishers will battle for the seat in November.

Watts has worked with Franklin the past three years. She is confident that her role in District 7 makes her the right choice.

“I’ve learned about the budgets, the creation of policies and I get to share my opinions,” Watts said of her participation in LAUSD board meetings. “I see my campaign as an opportunity to create a more open-door policy to hear more of the voices of parents and students.”

Davis, an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City, grew up in Los Angeles near Leimert Park and credits McKenna as one of his role models. Davis said McKenna’s work inspired him to get into the academic field, which led to principal assignments at Audubon, Raymond Avenue, Century Park and 54th Street middle schools.

Davis is taking a unique approach to the race.

“I’m not trying to replace Dr. McKenna,” Davis said. “I want to be DeWayne Davis. I have a pretty good feel for what the school system needs. The community needs someone with my experience who can express their concerns.”

Attempts have been made to host the candidates at community forums, but none of the events has featured all seven candidates. At least three forums were attended by only three of the candidates.

Barring a last-minute coordinated effort, the primary is likely to happen without a debate involving all seven candidates.

“The race will come down to who can effectively carry on the legacy of Dr. McKenna’s leadership,” Sausedo said. “That’s going to be the challenge for the voters to figure that out.”

Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at