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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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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.

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“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.”

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.

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