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The Takeover King 

Is Mayor V betraying his old-time union allies? Or rescuing L.A.’s troubled public school system? Whatever the answer, he faces the biggest risks of his political career.

Wednesday, May 17 2006
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Abel enthusiastically backs mayoral control, saying it will finally bring a citywide focus to public schools. That, in turn, will address an imbalance of power that has given school-employee unions disproportionate control over textbooks, school calendars, bathroom cleanup, maintenance, and the use of campuses and playgrounds, he said.

Yet the very threat of mayoral takeover has already diminished the political voice of the teachers’ union, which has offered lukewarm responses to Villaraigosa’s challenge. UTLA president A.J. Duffy, for example, has been an outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind, saying it allows the federal government to label a school as failing when a single student subgroup — for example, African-Americans or Asians or Spanish-speakers — shows a lack of improvement. When he is asked about Villaraigosa’s decision to use that same law as a tool in his takeover campaign, Duffy stammers and struggles to be diplomatic.

“My guys want me to be very cautious at this point, because we’re hopeful that we can come to some middle ground. And as you know, I’ve been very mindful of how I respond to these things, and I want to keep this debate civil,” Duffy explained. Pressed for comment, Duffy grew slightly more candid about the mayor. “He’s drawing conclusions that the district is failing, based upon data that he doesn’t even believe himself.”

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The path to mayoral takeover did not start with Villaraigosa. Nor did it begin with Hahn, who made crime reduction the hallmark of his first four years, only to find that schools were the hot electoral ticket during last year’s mayoral campaign. The very concept of an L.A. Unified takeover was born during that rough-and-tumble campaign, pushed to the forefront by a third candidate for mayor, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg — a man who was once Villaraigosa’s roommate, and who regularly listens to the views of David Abel.

Like Abel, Hertzberg was relentless on the need to address the dropout rate. And like Abel, he regularly compared the sprawling school district to East Germany during the Cold War. Hertzberg promised to break up L.A. Unified, a message that wowed voters on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, allowing him to come within spitting distance of a runoff against Villaraigosa.

“Certainly that wasn’t an issue [Villaraigosa] talked about in the beginning,” Hertzberg recalled. “He and Jim didn’t think schools were something the mayor should deal with.”

Hertzberg’s campaign left its mark, with Hahn and Villaraigosa scrambling to show a greater level of engagement on education issues. Both jumped at the chance to testify before the school board, and both signed a pledge issued by the Small Schools Alliance, which promised to shrink every campus in L.A. Unified to no more than 500 students by 2015 — even though neither candidate would be mayor by then because of term limits.

As the runoff campaign progressed, the education arms race intensified. Hahn, keenly aware that the positioning over the Small Schools pledge had been a draw, went out on a limb, telling voters that the Los Angeles mayor should have the power to appoint three school board members.

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.

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