Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Riordan Considers Broader Role in L.A. Schools

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Los Angeles

If he wins re-election to a second term, Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan may seek greater control over the city's school district, the nation's second largest.

In a recent interview here, Mr. Riordan said that he was impressed with arrangements in cities such as Chicago and Boston that have given mayors substantial authority over the schools, and that he approved of mayors' appointing school board members.

He strongly suggested he would favor such a plan for Los Angeles.

"I think it should be considered," Mr. Riordan said. "The mayor is the most visible person in the city and the only one the public knows enough about to hold accountable. ... You're not going to reform the school system unless you have changes in governance."

The Republican mayor's comments during a half-hour interview at his official residence this month apparently were the first to suggest his interest in overseeing the 667,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

A spokesman for the mayor said last week, however, that Mr. Riordan was not yet ready to take the first step by discussing the idea with state lawmakers. The California legislature would have to approve such a drastic shift in the district's governance.

In his re-election campaign, Mr. Riordan has a strong lead in the polls over his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Tom Hayden.

To protect that lead, the mayor has largely been avoiding the limelight and has turned down all but one opportunity to debate Mr. Hayden in the weeks leading up to the April 8 general election.

Opposition Likely

The spokesman, Steve Sugermen, said Mr. Riordan's top education priority right now is the passage of a massive $2.4 billion bond issue for school construction that is also on the ballot. If approved, Proposition BB would be the largest school bond ever for a U.S. city.

"His focus is on Proposition BB and other school reforms, and I don't think he's going to actively lobby at this point" for control over the district, Mr. Sugermen said.

Mr. Hayden, who also supports Proposition BB, has proposed that the city's mayor serve on the school board. He also favors community centers paid for by the school district and the city. But he decried the idea of a mayoral takeover of the district as a power grab.

"I think schools have to be fundamentally reformed, but I have a real problem with the mayor of a city of 4 million people trying to become an autocrat who controls everything," Mr. Hayden said last week. "Being mayor is a full-time job with many responsibilities, and to also be the number-one person in charge of schools is too much centralization of power."

If the mayor did seek greater authority, it would not be an easy task, and he would face certain opposition from the seven-member elected school board.

"I believe in separation of governance between schools and other functions because it allows for the greatest focus on the educational needs of children," said the board president, Jeff Horton. "The right of voters to choose who governs the educational system is an important democratic right."

Day Higuchi, the president of the 32,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles, also said he opposed mayoral control of the schools.

He added, however, that he believes the districts of board members need to be redrawn and that the current board tends to micromanage instead of set policy.

"The switching of authority to the mayor's office is not the answer," Mr. Higuchi said. "It is taking the voter out of the equation at the local level."

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