Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan for seizing control of L.A. Unified came into sharper focus last week, with the mayor mapping out his strategy for hiring the superintendent and radically reducing the responsibilities of the seven-member school board. The plan, unveiled with great fanfare at Villaraigosa’s annual State of the City address, came with an unexpected twist: Voters across L.A. Unified won’t get to decide the fate of the district, despite previous statements from Villaraigosa that they would get an election on mayoral takeover.
Standing before an audience of roughly 400 at the Accelerated School, a charter school in South Los Angeles, Villaraigosa said he will ask the state Legislature to create a 28-member Council of Mayors — a panel representing each community within L.A. Unified, from massive Los Angeles to microscopic Lomita — and promptly assign it the job of hiring and firing the superintendent. If such a bill passes, the mayors could be running the district starting January 1, a year ahead of the mayor’s previous schedule.
Yet there was a catch. Since each vote on the mayoral council would be weighted by population, Los Angeles would be the 800-pound gorilla in any hiring decision. With Los Angeles comprising 83.1 percent of the district’s residents, Villaraigosa would control more than four-fifths of any vote, giving him an overpowering advantage over all of the other cities combined.
With some television stations broadcasting the speech live, Villaraigosa described his plan for an emasculated school board, leaving that elected body with a relatively puny list of duties. The board would be allowed to decide whether to allow kids to transfer from one school to another, resolve some student-discipline cases and conduct a parent survey once a year. But the important decisions — budgets, curriculum, school construction, union negotiations — would all be transferred to the superintendent and his or her new bosses: Villaraigosa and 27 powerless mayors.
“We need to preserve the voters’ voice in an elected board, with that board’s powers designed to serve the needs of parents, not politicians,” said Villaraigosa, standing before a quartet of glossy photographs of himself — one speaking with schoolchildren, one posing with firefighters and so on.
Villaraigosa promised to reach consensus with the 27 other mayors. Still, it was hard not to wonder — with so few powers left for the school board, why bother electing it at all? The answer was left to Thomas Saenz, the mayor’s in-house attorney, who revealed in a separate City Hall briefing that as long as the school board, even a neutered one, is chosen by the voters, the mayor can take over the district without having to amend the City Charter — a process that would trigger an election, and quite possibly an ugly political campaign. The very existence of a powerless school board would keep the mayor from having to wage an election battle against his longtime allies, the powerful teachers union.
School board member Mike Lansing quickly attacked the mayor’s strategy, saying it shows that Villaraigosa doesn’t believe he can win at the ballot box. “Given that he has more political capital with his cronies at the Sacramento level, he’s trying to do an end-run around the people of Los Angeles, and the communities that surround it,” Lansing said. “He’s running a little bit scared, and he’s figuring this is the only way he can get anything through.”
United Teachers Los Angeles, in turn, said its own lawyers concluded that a mayoral takeover cannot occur without an election. Union president A.J. Duffy said his representatives are already heading to Sacramento to push their own alternative to Villaraigosa’s takeover.
“Not every legislator believes in his plan,” Duffy said. “There’s room to maneuver, and we’re going to be going upstate, talking to the legislators that we know.”
Others in the audience applauded the move, from state Senator Gloria Romero — who has been riding Villaraigosa hard over the need for a mayoral takeover — to Councilman Bernard Parks, who declared himself ready for a change at the top of L.A. Unified.
“The greatest failure of the school district is their lack of accountability,” Parks said. “And their second biggest failure is their inability to educate kids, which just happens to be the business that they’re in.”
What would the mayor’svarious changes mean?Parents, teachers and children could easily be left with an Imperial Superintendent, one charged with the responsibilities currently decided by the school board — approving textbooks, building new schools, bargaining with the unions and creating new charter schools. The Council of Mayors would likely meet only two or three times a year, to approve a budget and evaluate the superintendent’s performance, Saenz said. That would leave the superintendent as a one-man, or one-woman, judge and jury on curriculum, teacher pay or even eminent domain.
Talk of a coming battle in Sacramento clearly unnerved the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, which put out some cautionary words only a few hours before Villaraigosa’s speech. The chamber concluded that the mayor and the school board should not be “at war,” citing a quote made by Villaraigosa just last week.
“No good will come over a heated fight that focuses exclusively on governance,” the business group stated. “We’ll lose time and we’ll lose students.”
Villaraigosa disagreed sharply, saying in his address that too many children in South Los Angeles had been robbed of their childhoods, denied the opportunity to attend good schools, go to good colleges and find good jobs. Backing him up were the advocates of charter schools, who called the mayor’s school-reform strategy a courageous move.
“He has a lot of detractors in the audience,” said Steve Barr, who heads the charter-school organization known as Green Dot. “It’s the second-biggest district in the country, so to take it on like that I thought was very brave. We’re going to build an army for it.”