By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Villaraigosa took the bait. Within days, he outflanked Hahn, saying he wanted “ultimate control” of L.A. Unified. Those words would have deep ramifications for Villaraigosa’s first term in office, tethering him to a promise that voters would never forget.
Villaraigosa’s statement immediately sparked divisions within his camp of supporters. On the day of the announcement, one Villaraigosa operative privately described the campaign’s top strategists as “idiots” for letting their candidate go so far out on a limb. Yet surprisingly, the promise of mayoral takeover did little to ruffle the feathers of core supporters like UTLA and the CTA. In the months after his election victory, Villaraigosa tossed out hints that he might not need to pursue a mayoral takeover right away. The editorial board of the L.A. Times — headed by a transplant from New York City who had seen mayoral control there — quickly nailed the mayor for deviating from his campaign promise. Chastened by the city’s largest newspaper, Villaraigosa restated his interest in mayoral control and then went dormant for a few months, just as he was pushing for Measure Y, the $4 billion school-construction bond that passed on November 8 with nearly two-thirds of the vote — and for the man he chose to replace him on the City Council, school board president Jose Huizar.
For four years, Huizar served on a school board whose structure has gone largely unchanged for more than a century. In the late 1800s, when Los Angeles was but a small fraction of its current size, the school board operated out of City Hall and hovered between five and 11 members. In 1902, voters decided to reduce the size of the school board from nine to seven members, eliminating the system that allowed board members to be chosen from individual districts. Voters then avoided any other significant changes until 1978, when — seeking to bring minority representation to L.A. Unified — they abandoned the at-large system and went back to electing board members from districts.
The woman who replaced Huizar as board president is perhaps the unlikeliest figure at L.A. Unified to defend the current system. In 2001, former schoolteacher Marlene Canter unseated an incumbent school board member who had been backed by UTLA, which vigorously opposes mayoral control. During the runoff campaign, Canter picked up the backing of Riordan — a fan of both mayoral control and breakup. And her message was honed by John Shallman, who helped Hertzberg craft his successful school-based mayoral campaign.
A resident of Westwood, Canter got her start in education as a teacher at Alta Loma Elementary School in 1971. Those first years were rocky ones, as Canter discovered that she lacked the skills to bring order to her classroom. After learning that other teachers had similar frustrations, Canter and her then-husband devised and then drafted a list of strategies for helping teachers impose discipline. The couple soon had a consulting company in Santa Monica, staffed with experts who could train teachers to manage their classrooms and solve the problem of bad behavior. Canter sold the company in 1998, but stayed on as an adviser until 2000, when she decided to run for the school board.
Where Villaraigosa is calm and reassuring, Canter can be brittle and nervous. Yet she has slowly found her footing, working the room at Villaraigosa’s State of the City address and reciting carefully crafted soundbites for the print, radio and television reporters who had been cordoned off for much of the event. Since the mayor’s speech, she has been talking nonstop about L.A. Unified’s accomplishments, including its roster of California Distinguished Schools — the most in district history — and its winning Academic Decathlon Team. As she has grown more comfortable in the spotlight, Canter has begun portraying Villaraigosa’s initiative as a politically driven bid for power.
“My focus is the kids of L.A., as it is with the rest of the board and the superintendent, and every day [Villaraigosa] doesn’t work with us is a day he’s cheating the kids,” she said. “He’s been to New York and Chicago more than he’s been to our offices. He hasn’t met with the board members. I don’t think he really knows what our mission or vision is. . . . If he did, he’d find that there’s nothing that he’s saying that hasn’t been talked about or done.”
In the first months after Villaraigosa took office, Canter and the mayor had achieved a sort of détente, working in tandem for the passage of Measure Y. On election night — just as Villaraigosa, Canter and a wide-ranging union coalition celebrated passage of Measure Y and the defeat of Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures — the mayor lowered the boom. Standing in the Biltmore Hotel, he turned to Canter and told her that he planned to launch the next phase of his education campaign, making L.A. Unified his target.
Said Canter: “The way I felt was, it was like we had just finished this political fight, and now we’re on to the next one. And that’s why I say it’s all about politics.”
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