L.A. Mayor Seen as Poised to Get His Way on Schools

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After months of political wrangling and a pitched battle with school officials, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s bid to assume partial control over the nation’s second-largest school district was on the verge of final approval by California lawmakers last week.

Mr. Villaraigosa’s plan—packaged as state legislation that bypasses local voters—had passed two key committees in the state Senate, despite an expensive and passionate lobbying effort by district officials to defeat it. Late last week, the measure was waiting for a vote by the full Senate, before it would move on for a vote in the Assembly.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has said for months that he would sign the measure.

“This is going to be a huge step forward for Los Angeles and its schools,” said Steve Barr, the founder and chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates five charter high schools in Los Angeles and is opening five more this fall.

“It’s not perfect, and I would have preferred total mayor control, but this is a guy who can put talent together to create some models that will work across the district, instead of just one little school there and one little school here,” Mr. Barr said of the mayor.

The mayor, a Democrat who took office in July 2005, has staked his first term on improving schools in the Los Angeles Unified district. He has cited independent studies that put the district’s high school graduation rate at no better than 50 percent as his moral imperative for shaking up the system. District officials dispute the figures.

If successful in having the legislation enacted, Mayor Villaraigosa would have the final say over the hiring and firing of the superintendent for the 727,000-student district. He would share that decision, in part, with a council of mayors representing the 26 other cities that lie within its boundaries. He also would be in charge of running a cluster of the lowest-performing schools, creating a special district within the district.

But Mr. Villaraigosa’s authority would be more limited than that of his counterparts in Boston, Chicago, and New York City, where the mayors appoint board members and play a larger role in deciding how their cities’ schools operate.

Limiting Board’s Power

Under his quasi-takeover approach, the seven-member, elected school board would continue to negotiate teacher contracts, but would be stripped of many of its other responsibilities, such as line-by-line budget approval.

Albeit vaguely, the bill also calls for giving teachers a role in choosing curriculum, a concession that the mayor accepted to help eliminate opposition from United Teachers Los Angeles and its statewide counterpart, the California Teachers Association, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Mr. Villaraigosa has managed to assuage other opponents too, but the school district’s leaders have remained steadfastly opposed.

Superintendent Roy Romer and Marlene Canter, the president of the school board, have mounted a campaign to convince lawmakers that the mayor’s plan is built on the false premise that the Los Angeles Unified School District is failing.

“We are an easy dog to kick,” Ms. Canter has said.

Both have repeatedly cited the district’s steady gains in elementary students’ standardized-test scores, especially in reading, and data showing that Los Angeles students are improving at a faster rate than their counterparts across the state. They’ve also touted the district’s enormous construction program, which has built dozens of new schools, and, when complete, will bring more than 150 new campuses to the district.

That $19 billion program could be compromised by the mayor’s plan, Mr. Romer told state lawmakers last month during a Senate committee hearing.

But lawmakers in Sacramento, most of whom are Democrats and allies of the mayor from his days in the state Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, have largely supported his plans.

The bill’s likely success makes parents like Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, who has two children enrolled in Los Angeles Unified schools, very nervous. Ms. Zobel-Rodriguez lives in San Fernando and cannot vote in Los Angeles’ mayoral elections. She says parents in her neighborhood seem fairly evenly divided over Mr. Villaraigosa’s bid to exert control.

“What happens when he leaves and if this great experiment peters out?” said Ms. Zobel-Rodriguez, whose children attend schools outside her neighborhood.

“I am not going to say that LAUSD doesn’t need reform, but this is being rammed down our throats by a man that I didn’t vote for,” she said. “I resent that he is telling me that none of the district is working, when I know that’s not the case.”

PHOTO: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, center, meets with local religious leaders to announce their support for a state bill that would give the mayor an increased role in governing the Los Angeles Unified School District. State lawmakers were on the verge of approving the measure late last week.
—Damian Dovarganes/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 01, Pages 5, 20

Published in Print: August 30, 2006, as L.A. Mayor Seen as Poised to Get His Way on Schools
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