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A day later, Villaraigosa returned to the Biltmore to address a group of business leaders, where he promptly blasted L.A. Unified’s troubled schools and told the audience he planned to wage a “battle royal” for control of the district. The radical change in message seemed suspect to some on the school board, who questioned whether Villaraigosa had refrained from criticizing L.A. Unified for months just to avoid harming the election chances of Huizar, the council candidate who had served for the previous four years on the school board.
As his campaign has progressed, Villaraigosa has worked a storyline into many of his education-related events: L.A. Unified fails low-income and Spanish-speaking students — indeed, does not even believe they can be taught. One such event occurred on the roof of a charter school in downtown Los Angeles, as it accepted a $6 million contribution from entertainment mogul Casey Wasserman. The celebration resembled a revival meeting, with one parent weeping onstage as she described her battle to move her son out of L.A. Unified’s regular high school system and onto a Green Dot campus.
“I was scared. I was a single parent, and I thought I was losing my son to the system,” said Mary Najera, the mother of an 11th-grader now attending Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter School. As she described her son’s transformation from F student to engaged pupil, Najera choked her way through angry sobs. “Like hell I was going to give up on my son,” she told the crowd of 500 parents and students.
That moment was not lost on the mayor, or on the man who had invited him, Green Dot founder and CEO Steve Barr.
“The only way the game’s gonna change is if you create a parent revolt,” said Barr a few days later. “This issue is just brutal. You’re losing 30,000 to 40,000 kids a year from dropout rates, and you’ve got a work force that’s pretty much illiterate. Try to attract business to this city. Not only is real estate through the moon, but you’ve got to pay double or triple tax, depending on how many kids you’ve got, to send them to private school.”
Green Dot has focused exclusively on students in low-income neighborhoods in Lennox, Inglewood and Los Angeles, promising parents schools with no more than 500 students, individualized attention, and minimal overhead costs. So far, Barr’s organization operates five schools with a total of 2,200 students.
In his spare time, Barr has provided Villaraigosa behind-the-scenes advice on mayoral takeover, working to make sure the mayor sticks with a plan for smaller schools and a decentralization of L.A. Unified. Barr has also been waging his own exhausting battle for control — attempting to rally parents in South Los Angeles to convert troubled Jefferson High School into a Green Dot campus.
That battle is far from over, with UTLA promising to fight Barr’s effort to organize parents around Jefferson. Yet Barr is already talking about Green Dot transformations of other major high schools within L.A. Unified. Now that he lives in Silver Lake and has an 8-month-old baby girl, Barr suggests that one future target might be the 4,400-seat Marshall High School in nearby Franklin Hills, where his daughter will one day go to school.
“It’d be interesting to take this fight that we’re doing at Jefferson, and do it in a middle-class neighborhood,” said Barr. “Because I think the traction would be unbelievable.”
One day after he delivered his State of the City address and accompanying plan for L.A. Unified, Villaraigosa made his way to Chinatown, where he revealed many of the details of his 2006-'07 budget, his first as mayor. The conceit was simple: Villaraigosa will invest more in children’s programs — park space, library books and library hours, and so on. Not only are such programs winners with the public, but they conveniently insulate the mayor against criticism that the man who wants to run the public schools does too little to help schoolchildren.
Standing before dozens of elementary school students, Villaraigosa and his closest allies on the City Council — Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti, Bernard Parks — congratulated each other for finding an extra $1 million in this year’s budget to pay for library hours, a move that would allow 24 branch libraries to expand from 52 to 60 hours a week.
On its face, the announcement sounded like the kind of incrementalism that critics of L.A. Unified say they hate. If the city really wanted to help kids, why wouldn’t it dig a little deeper into its pockets and find another $3.9 million, a sum that represents one-half of 1 percent of the budget and would instantly allow each of the city’s 71 branch libraries to open every Sunday? Hours before Villaraigosa appeared in Chinatown, the City Council voted to spend $40 million to expand its elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo — a move the mayor agreed to let stand.
District officials repeatedly argue that Los Angeles should model itself after San Francisco, by providing a greater level of city funds to pay for children’s programs, arts activities and school safety. In Los Angeles, the school board held a special hearing to receive testimony from San Francisco city officials, who recently beefed up funding for children, but no one from the media covered the event. By comparison, Villaraigosa’s Chinatown press conference drew more than a dozen reporters, including several television-news cameras.