School & District Management

L.A. Mayor Seeks Role in District

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 25, 2006 6 min read
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After months of deliberations and promises of dramatic change for Los Angeles’ embattled schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last week called for California lawmakers to put his office in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the nation’s second-largest school district.

In his first State of the City Address, Mr. Villaraigosa rolled out the details of his controversial bid to run the public education system. He proposed that he and a “council of mayors,” representing the 27 cities that constitute the district of 727,000 students, would have the authority to hire and fire the superintendent, control the budget, handle collective bargaining, and adopt curricula.

The Los Angeles mayor would essentially control the mayors’ council, since votes would be in proportion to the member cities’ populations—a feature that will likely make the plan a tough sell to leaders of the smaller municipalities that make up the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“The buck needs to stop at the top,” Mr. Villaraigosa, a Democrat who took office last July, said in his speech on April 18. “Fragmentation is failing our kids. Voters need to be able to hire and fire one person accountable to parents, teachers, and taxpayers, a leader who is ultimately responsible for systemwide performance.”

Though Mr. Villaraigosa’s plan would keep intact the district’s elected board of education, it would strip the panel of nearly all of its authority. Instead, the seven-member board would function more as an advisory panel, which the mayor said would oversee disciplinary policy, prepare annual reports on school performance, and “act as advocates for the parents and communities that they serve.”

In 2002, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York won a similar legislative campaign for control of his city’s schools. Boston’s schools have been run by that city’s mayor since 1991, and Chicago’s since 1995.

Mr. Villaraigosa also said he would dramatically shrink the district’s central office and give school principals more power to manage their budgets and make hiring and firing decisions. He would lengthen the school day, add six weeks to the school year calendar, and raise teachers’ salaries to compensate them for the extra time. He would require students to wear uniforms.

Called ‘Undemocratic’

The mayor, who delivered his speech from the Accelerated School, a 12-year-old charter school in a poor section of South Los Angeles, also called for smaller “learning communities” and an expansion of charter schools in the district.

A.J. Duffy, the president of the Los Angeles teachers’ union, and Marlene Canter, the president of the board of education, called his move to win control of the school system and remove all policymaking powers from the school board “undemocratic.”

“His plan is about power and politics,” said Ms. Canter, who has served on the board for five years. “He is taking away the voice of the people who elect the school board 100 percent.”

In detailing the much-anticipated takeover proposal that he has been touting since his campaign for mayor last spring, Mr. Villaraigosa has provoked what will no doubt be a heated, protracted battle involving local and state politicians, community members, school district officials, and the powerful teachers’ union.

Under Superintendent Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who became Los Angeles’ schools chief in 2000, the district has taken steps to relieve overcrowding by launching a massive initiative to build 180 new schools. Test scores for elementary students have improved during Mr. Romer’s tenure, although district officials acknowledge that much more needs to be done to boost achievement, especially for middle and high school students.

And while Mayor Villaraigosa pursues enactment of his takeover strategy, the school board must conduct a national search to replace Mr. Romer, who plans to leave the district’s top job as early as September.

“We are keeping our eyes on the ball to find the very best person,” said Ms. Canter. “It certainly complicates things,” she said of the mayor’s plan, “but we can’t lose sight of our responsibilities during all of this.”

The mayor, meanwhile, will take the plan—which requires a change in state law that would not be put before local voters—to Sacramento, where politicians in the state Capitol began taking sides less than 24 hours after the mayor unveiled his strategy.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, pledged to back Mr. Villaraigosa, a former speaker of the state Assembly. Such Democratic stalwarts as Los Angeles Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg—a former Los Angeles school board member, close ally of the teachers’ union, and the chairwoman of the Assembly’s education committee—oppose the measure.

Some Republican lawmakers, concerned about disenfranchising the small cities in the school district, also expressed opposition.

The legislature’s top Democrat, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a longtime ally of Mr. Villaraigosa’s, promised to give the plan fair consideration. At one time, Mr. Núñez served as the chief lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified district.

The 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, along with several community-based organizations, will lobby to stop the mayor’s bid, said Mr. Duffy, the union’s president. The powerful California Teachers Association, also said it would fight against mayoral control.

Mr. Duffy said lawyers for the teachers’ union were studying whether Mr. Villaraigosa’s plan to circumvent Los Angeles voters violates the Los Angeles city charter and, perhaps, the state constitution.

The mayor said he would ask lawmakers to approve his plan on a “trial basis” for six years.

Winning Message?

Maria Casillas, a former Los Angeles Unified administrator and the president of Families in Schools, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles that works to increase parental involvement, predicted that the mayor would be able to build support for his plan in many parts of the city.

His charisma, Spanish fluency, and compelling personal experience as a high school dropout who went on to college and law school will resonate in the city’s poor and working-class neighborhoods, she said.

“Once he goes out to the low-income communities and makes his pitch, I think he will win them over,” said Ms. Casillas, who is the co-chairwoman of a commission that has been holding public hearings on how to improve the governance of the district.

Ms. Casillas, who works closely with black and Latino families, said most parents she talks to don’t trust that the school district is representing their interests or those of their children.

“These are the parents who have never been invited to the table, and if the mayor campaigns among them, to Latino and African-American parents, they will get behind this,” she said. “Right now, they may not know if [the mayor’s plan] is going to be a better deal for them, but they certainly don’t like the status quo.”

Even if Mr. Villaraigosa’s proposal succeeds, one education expert cautioned, no one should expect that his leadership will solve the most fundamental challenge in most urban districts: raising students’ academic performance.

“For a mayor to take over a school district is a legitimate function of his office if he can do it,” said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “But to promise that mayoral takeover will improve academic achievement is misleading at best, and at worst a lie, because the mayor does not have control of what teachers do once they close their classroom door.”

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