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Passing Marks 

Lawmakers bombard Mayor V with questions, but his school plan still makes the grade

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
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STATE SENATOR JACK SCOTT WAS CLEARLY getting miffed. The panel that he heads, the Senate Education Committee, needed to review dozens of bills on Wednesday. And yet his colleagues kept coming up with more and more time-consuming questions about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s rapidly reworked, highly complicated plan for running the Los Angeles Unified School District. Despite Scott’s best efforts to keep the debate to 90 minutes, the committee had spent two and a half hours reviewing the plan for L.A. Unified, with no end in sight.

Scott, a Democrat from Pasadena, declared his support for the bill in an attempt to end the deliberations. “I wish that we were discussing this two months ago and we could put it over for another discussion. I know the mayor’s on a tight schedule. This committee’s on a tight schedule.”

Added state Senator Jackie Speier: “This is a bill with profound impacts on a large percentage of the students in California, that we are hearing in a very short period of time on a very lengthy agenda — which I regret.”

Villaraigosa’s plan for L.A. Unified, a district with 727,000 children, still faces another committee, the full Senate and the state Assembly. But Wednesday’s 7-1 vote sent some strong messages to partisans on both sides: The train is leaving the station, and Democrats are going to send the bill to a welcoming governor no matter how many questions are raised regarding the new L.A. Unified flow chart — one crafted in a burst of late-night negotiations just last week.

Scott and his colleagues had posed a number of complicated queries for the bill, which would not have survived the legislative session without their approval on Wednesday. Scott, for example, was anxious about allowing teachers and principals at school sites to pick their own textbooks, an issue that backers of the bill promised to address. State Senator Alan Lowenthal was worried about conflicts between Villaraigosa and the school board, especially if the mayor is placed in charge of three of L.A. Unified’s low-performing mini-districts. State Senator Jackie Speier asked why teachers would support a bill that gives so much power to the superintendent. And state Senator Elaine Alquist, a former school board member herself, simply did not like giving Villaraigosa and 26 other mayors veto power over the hiring and firing of the superintendent. “Participation is fine, veto power is not,” she said.

Yet within minutes, all four provided reliable votes for Villaraigosa’s bill, which had the support of Senate President pro tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez — both of whom have the power to thwart legislation backed by those who resist the new school plan. The bill — now touted as a “power sharing” agreement between Los Angeles, 26 smaller cities, teachers, board members and the superintendent — received only one opposing vote.

The plan itself seeks to divide power in a number of ways. The elected school board would still handle some policy matters, like passing budgets and making decisions, at least on some level, regarding curriculum. The superintendent would run the construction program, with Villaraigosa’s new Council of Mayors providing oversight and the school board retaining the power of eminent domain — or the seizure of private property. And the mayor would determine who runs the district.

Lawmakers were especially concerned about the three proposed Villaraigosa mini-districts, each having roughly 12 campuses. Senator Bill Morrow, R-Carlsbad, questioned whether such districts violate the state Constitution. (Villaraigosa’s lawyer said no.) Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat, wondered if the Villaraigosa mini-districts would clash with L.A. Unified. What happens, he asked, if Villaraigosa wants to reassign a teacher out of his mini-district and the superintendent refuses?

Superintendent Roy Romer, the most effective voice against the Villaraigosa plan, said the mini-districts could make things especially difficult for the $19 billion school-construction program. As each new campus opens, the attendance boundaries will shift — a process that will be complicated if L.A. Unified needs to detour children around the mayor’s miniature school systems. Romer, atypically, even displayed an unexpected flash of humor. Partway through his remarks, he stopped to read aloud a note he had been handed by another school official. “ ‘More charm, less angry,’ ” said Romer, prompting laughter from the audience. Then he deadpanned: “I think that came from the mayor.”

Still, Romer failed to persuade the committee to limit the Villaraigosa subdistricts to middle and high schools. He did not convince lawmakers that the next superintendent will have two or more masters. And the committee did not buy Romer’s argument that a major change in governance could halt the district’s progress in improving test scores.

Villaraigosa, for his part, stuck to his new script for L.A. Unified by using the same words over and over: consensus, collaboration, participation — concepts that sound much friendlier than mayoral takeover or mayoral control. The only heated exchange came when Villaraigosa told the panel that philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation won’t come to Los Angeles until school governance changes. Romer then corrected Villaraigosa, telling the committee that the foundation has actually spent the past eight weeks talking to the district about funding a rewrite of the math and language-arts curriculum. “The mayor just doesn’t know this fact,” Romer said.

“That was prompted by this legislation,” Villaraigosa responded, which then provoked an acid retort from Romer: “We all can put our twist on history.”

Still, the truly thuggish remarks were left to Perata, the first speaker to address the committee, who hit L.A. Unified with a rhetorical brick. “[This] is the first time that I can recall that the state and the Legislature are actively trying to help a school district before it goes into bankruptcy,” said Perata, drawing gasps from the audience.

A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, provided more accommodating words, saying Villaraigosa will fix L.A. Unified by bringing more stakeholders into the decision-making process. “This bill has been criticized for fragmenting authority over the system so that no one person is accountable, but that is precisely the genius of this legislation,” Duffy said.

The unions publicly opposed Villaraigosa’s takeover plan until last week, when the mayor promised more teacher involvement on the curriculum. But by the time the hearing was over, one of the issues that had concerned teachers across California unexpectedly surfaced. Republican state Senator Jeff Denham sought without success to insert Fresno into the bill, paving the way for that city’s mayor to gain more control of his community’s schools. In other words, the bill could open the Pandora’s box long feared by some activists within the California Teachers Association: cities across California seeking to turn school districts into municipal agencies.

Villaraigosa strongly opposed any effort to add Fresno to his bill. But he offered moral support to any mayor seeking power over the public schools. “Obviously if I believed the mayor of Los Angeles should have this authority, I would support other mayors and other cities having that authority as well,” he said.

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