And then there were none
School board bypasses Latino applicants to appoint Sierra Madre’s Mikala Rahn to vacant at-large seat
By André Coleman 06/05/2013
In what came as a surprise to some and an outrage to others, the Pasadena Board of Education selected a longtime contractor with the Pasadena Unified School District to fill the at-large board seat remaining following the move from at-large to district-only elections.
Switching to district elections was meant to make political positions more attainable for minorities, specifically Latinos. However, exactly the opposite occurred in the March election and April runoff, with Latinos in three of four races losing. In the end, three incumbents easily won re-election and one well-financed Latino candidate, Ruben Hueso, lost to an underfunded African-American candidate, Tyron Hampton. With the decision not to run again by the board’s lone Latino member, Ramon Miramontes, the board was left with no Latino representation — in a district with a Latino student population of more than 61 percent.
On Saturday, it was widely assumed that one of a number of Latinos of the 37 applicants for the two years remaining in the board’s empty at-large seat would be chosen. The reason for moving to district elections was based on the assumption that the district would be sued for holding “racially polarized” elections under the old system. But instead, the board voted 4-2, with Board President Renatta Cooper and Board member Elizabeth Pomeroy in the minority, to appoint Learning Works Director and Sierra Madre resident Mikala Rahn.
“I told the board that I wish I was a Latina, because they are unrepresented, but I am not. I am just a white woman who has fought damn hard for Latino and African-American children,” Rahn said.
Alex Nogales, head of the Pasadena-based National Hispanic Media Coalition, called Rahn’s selection “outrageous.”
“If the Latinos who were in the running were dummies, I would not say a word, but I spoke to three of them that were highly qualified,” Nogales said. “When you have a population that great and that many children that are Latino in the schools, we should have a voice. … This is not just and it is not fair.”
Rahn’s appointment came after a five-hour special meeting in which Board members Scott Phelps, Kim Kenne, Tom Selinske and Hampton voted in her favor over Carmen Vargas, a Latina and second-runner up in the board’s polling.
Rahn founded Learning Works to help place dropouts back into the classroom. Learning Works is part of the nonprofit Public Works, which evaluates public education trends for the California Department of Education and school districts, including Pasadena.
Phelps, who, campaign finance records show, accepted a $125 contribution from Rahn in his March 5 re-election bid, works as an independent contractor for the group.
According to the Pasadena Sun, Public Works currently holds a $15,000 contract with the district to do state reporting for the district’s afterschool program. Rahn told the Sun her business would give up that contract and will not seek additional contracts while she in on the board. In 2007, Learning Works was awarded an $80,000 contract by the school board. Phelps recused himself in that vote.
Rahn’s victory not only provides Sierra Madre with representation left out of the district plans, but could shift the balance of power on the school board to Phelps, who won re-election in March but lost the election for the board presidency after the board deadlocked on an election between him and Pomeroy, leading to Cooper’s reappointment to the position last week. With Rahn now in Phelps’s corner, he could have the four votes needed to become board president next year.
Beyond the board’s internal political issues, “Thus far, the redistricting results have been unsuccessful in terms of minority representation on the board, particularly in relation to the Latino community,” Cooper told the Weekly. “Latinos were underrepresented when the process began. They are unrepresented now.”
Rahn told the Weekly, her only allegiance is to the children of the district.
“I will do a good job to represent Latinos. [Learning Works] is predominately Latino and it has been my life’s work fighting to closing the achievement gap,” Rahn said. “There is no basis in reality that I am allied to anyone. I am allied with the children and families in the district. In many ways, I have common cause with all of them. I have worked with Renatta on mass incarceration issues at All Saints Church. They are all committed to children. That is what we need to get back to.”