By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
DOZENS OF PARENTS GATHERED MONDAY outside the 29-story headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District for a demonstration staged by grassroots groups such as ACORN, One L.A. and Green Dot, the charter-school organization taking over Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles. Carrying signs that read “Stop the Waste,” the parents demanded that L.A. Unified stop spending money on high-priced consultants — particularly Darry Sragow, a seasoned political pro who is working as the district’s outside legal counsel and public-relations strategist.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had a few of his own political consultants on hand, ones funded by his powerful fund-raising apparatus. Weaving through the crowd of working-class, primarily Spanish-speaking parents were nattily dressed operatives from the mayor’s 2005 campaign, coordinating with the organizers and distributing anti–L.A. Unified news articles. There was Nathan James, the mayor’s former campaign spokesman, and Michael Trujillo, the 2005 campaign volunteer who made a name for himself by writing anonymously on the Web site known as Mayor Sam, which regularly lobbed chatty if unsigned attacks on Villaraigosa’s enemies during and after the election.
Trujillo and James spent the past few months on the doomed campaign of Proposition 82, the preschool initiative defeated on June 6 despite a barrage of campaign ads featuring — you guessed it — Villaraigosa. But by Monday, they were part of the mayor’s Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability, which is pushing for passage in Sacramento of the mayor’s increasingly complicated plan for L.A. Unified.
L.A. voters never got to vote on mayoral takeover, and it’s equally unlikely there will be an election on the watered-down alternative crafted last week by Villaraigosa and the teachers unions. What there will be, however, is a campaign for the votes of Sacramento legislators. Hours after the demonstration, Villaraigosa’s political committee publicly sprang to life, sending a blast e-mail instructing thousands of supporters to bombard the state Senate’s Education Committee with messages of support for Villaraigosa’s plan.
Not that such a campaign is necessarily needed. With the powerful backing of Senate President Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, Villaraigosa’s plan sailed through the committee easily on a 7-1 vote Wednesday. Democrats, keenly aware that the party’s leadership demanded an aye vote, fell in line on the measure despite a number of misgivings. Most of the committee’s Republicans simply declined to vote. And lawmakers from both parties had trouble grasping where the power in L.A. Unified would shift under Villaraigosa’s plan.
Because so many dramatic changes have been made to the mayor’s education initiative, the bill simply wasn’t the easiest to grasp. For one thing, Villaraigosa’s initiative no longer has a name. It’s not exactly a mayoral takeover anymore, since Villaraigosa pulled back a bit from that goal. It’s not exactly mayoral accountability either, since an elected school board will continue to make policy, at least regarding budgets and, to a lesser degree, curriculum. Villaraigosa’s e-mail blast promised smaller classroom sizes, yet his education bill does not address that topic. Even the e-mail’s mention of better qualified teachers seemed a bit of a stretch, since the Villaraigosa bill only addresses teaching at 36 of the district’s low-performing campuses — the ones where Villaraigosa would attain true control, which make up less than 5 percent of L.A. Unified.
In short, Villaraigosa’s compromise bill for L.A. Unified now stands as one of the strangest initiatives of his year-old administration. Instead of giving the mayor the single line of accountability that he had publicly demanded for so long, the compromise would — if passed — leave Villaraigosa, the superintendent and the elected school board jockeying for power until 2013. Supporters described that as a worthy half measure, one that finally gives the mayor a foot in the door at L.A. Unified. Opponents called it a blueprint for political combat, with the Los Angeles mayor, the 26 other cities within L.A. Unified and the elected school board — not to mention a superintendent who would remain beholden to all three — continually at war, fighting like scorpions under glass over textbooks, budgets and school construction.
Privately, policymakers at City Hall don’t know what to make of the new plan. Is it a face-saving measure for a mayor who simply couldn’t wow Democrats with his vision of mayoral control? Or a coup for reformers who will finally get the camel’s nose under the tent at L.A. Unified? Did the mayor, craving the immediate gratification of a victory from a grateful public, unexpectedly blink? Or did the teachers union leadership sell out members who had voted to oppose takeover? So complicated is the compromise that one week after it was unveiled, no one knows for certain who won.
For reformers, Villaraigosa was the bloodied, if unbowed, victor. Not only had he gotten United Teachers Los Angeles, a powerful foe of mayoral takeover, to join his movement, but he had finally found a way to limit the power of the elected board. “I’m not as pessimistic as most people are about [the plan],” said Green Dot president Steve Barr, who traveled to Sacramento to lobby for its passage. “This at least gets the mayor to the table, if nothing else.”