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The New Fall Guy 

Those high dropout rates and low test scores are Mayor V’s problem now

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006
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MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA paused at his noisy victory party to offer one more admonition about the education bill that had just allowed him to roll over the L.A. Unified School District: This is a partnership, not a takeover. Yet the symbols of invasion were everywhere. He had a parent army culled from the region’s charter schools. He even fired a series of cannons, showering the cheering crowd with confetti. Villaraigosa had gone to Sacramento to stage a bloodless coup. Why not celebrate with fake cannons?

Forget the talk about tinkering around the edges and giving away the store. The mayor truly seized power at L.A. Unified this week, cementing his place in the ranks of big-city mayors by narrowly winning passage of his school bill — and rendering school boards up and down California potentially obsolete.

Despite all the hand-wringing, from fears that the bill empowers the teachers union to confusion over plans for a 32-member Council of Mayors, Villaraigosa convinced the state Legislature to let him veto the hiring or firing of the L.A. Unified superintendent. That, in turn, makes the top schools post just another city department head, like the woman who runs the planning department or the guy who oversees the city’s parks.

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And in that context, the state Assembly’s 42-20 vote represented a coup for the mayor, both literally and figuratively. Villaraigosa simultaneously stripped the elected seven-member school board of most of its powers and brought to an end a century-old system of governance at L.A. Unified — all without asking voters for permission, all in the span of a single year. This was not so much a coup d’état as it was a coup d’école, with Villaraigosa emerging as the public face of an education bureaucracy with an $8 billion annual budget and $19 billion in construction spending.

The political shift will take some getting used to. Suddenly, Villaraigosa will be responsible for the dropout rate, from how it is measured to which group suffers the most. Villaraigosa will be held accountable for test scores, good or bad, for school construction, right or wrong. Villaraigosa, who spent half a year portraying L.A. Unified as a failing district, is now the face of that very district. “We all are,” added Deputy Mayor Ramon Cortines, one of the two dozen mayoral staffers attending Villaraigosa’s victory party.

Tuesday night’s Assembly vote was closer than many Villaraigosa supporters imagined, with the mayor winning by only one more vote than the minimum. Still, lawmakers who had talked tough about the bill in private ultimately fell in line, acceding to the wishes and threats of a party leadership — Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and President Pro Tem Don Perata.

Those few Democrats who rejected the party line did so because they lacked convincing answers to two key questions. Does this thing violate the state Constitution? (The state legislative counsel had already said yes.) And what if Villaraigosa’s velvet revolution spreads? After all, the Legislature’s vote threatened to make the notion of school boards irrelevant, as meaningless as the one that will remain in Los Angeles after January 1, when Villaraigosa’s bill goes into effect.

State Senator Denise Ducheny, one of the bill’s supporters, brushed aside such worries, suggesting that California cities who want a crack at their own school districts are in for a disappointment. Ducheny sided with Villaraigosa on the grounds that L.A. Unified is a unique and special case, because — well, because it’s really big. “I would be very uncomfortable with [the bill], frankly, as a precedent for others,” the San Diego Democrat said daintily, hoping to quash the hopes of ambitious mayors across the state.

Ducheny, like her counterparts, was trying to reassure the nervous school board members from her own district. But a much louder message came from Villaraigosa and Núñez.

Still, three separate conversations with the mayor weren’t enough to convince state Senator Jackie Speier, one of two Democrats in the upper house who voted against the bill. Speier predicted the Legislature will see more mayors in the coming years and told Villaraigosa she wished he had devoted more energy trying to help L.A. Unified before “using a sledgehammer.”

“You might as well, from my perspective, get rid of the school board, because they will have virtually no power and very little responsibility,” said Speier, before warning, “This is just the beginning of many other efforts by many other jurisdictions.”

BACKERS OF THE BILL — both those who genuinely supported it and those who badmouthed it in private — said its strength was that it had been crafted singularly around Villaraigosa. The bill’s provisions expire in 2013, the final year that Villaraigosa can serve as mayor. The effects of the bill won’t be evaluated until 2011, but by then, Villaraigosa — who is very interested in running for governor in four years — could already be in the governor’s mansion.

While the back-to-back votes were taking place, Villaraigosa tried to shift gears, promising to build consensus with the district officials who were being toppled by his quiet revolution. But the mayor had already leveled a threat, earlier in the week, to fire any superintendent who is hired by the school board over the next four months and fails to meet his exacting standards. Never mind that the school board had already spent half a year searching for a replacement for Superintendent Roy Romer, the 77-year-old former governor of Colorado who discovered after six years in charge just how little clout the district — let alone its lobbying team — wields in Sacramento.

With the mayor slipping into threat mode, it fell to state lawmakers to speak softly and brutalize the board of education, mouthing syrupy words of affection for a district whose governing structure they had just gutted.

“I support this bill because I love the L.A. Unified School District,” said state Senator Sheila Kuehl, before voting for a bill that was the legislative equivalent of hitting each of the seven school board members in the kneecaps with a baton.

The Los Angeles school board — disoriented by the inherently two-faced nature of the state Legislature and emasculated in the face of raw power — now finds itself with exactly two trump cards: a lawsuit challenging the bill’s constitutionality, and their upcoming hiring of the next superintendent.

In only four months, however, the new superintendent will be under the mayor’s thrall. And in March, the mayor will likely try to elect a new slate of board members — board members all too willing to drop the district’s lawsuit against the mayor.

In the face of the mayor’s juggernaut, one of the few moments of dissent came from Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who questioned whether the Villaraigosa-centric bill had fallen prey to a massive cult of personality. Florez — whose district includes Fresno, where another mayor hopes to pull the trigger on school reform — suggested this week that his colleagues were a bit too eager to bask in the mayor’s beatific glow.

Those were fighting words for state Senator Gloria Romero, who insisted the bill had nothing to do with personalities and everything to do with the three principals behind the bill — and their hunger for education. To bring her point home, Romero then went into the life histories of those three, um, personalities — herself, Núñez and the mayor, a one-time high-school dropout who, in a well-told story, went on to finish school.

“This is a speaker who grew up in Tijuana and shined shoes in a dream, an immigrant’s dream, that he too one day could have a better life,” said Romero, the bill’s author. “This is about my passion, growing up on the other side of the tracks, with a mother with a sixth-grade education who always conveyed to her daughter, me, that with education you can move forward. So it’s not about personalities.”

While some worried about the effect of Villaraigosa’s bill on school boards, Speier suggested that the bigger victim could end up being the state Legislature itself. “You know, the public thinks we don’t work too well either. Does that mean the solution is to put more power into the hands of the governor?” she asked.

Perhaps Speier knows something. After all, Villaraigosa hopes to win the governor’s race in 2010, once the seat is vacated by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Republican governor, who allied himself with the mayor on school reform, frequently complains of a meddling Legislature — a flaw that Villaraigosa could be well positioned to correct. And most importantly, Villaraigosa’s opposition researcher will need someone new to target once the mayor replaces four incumbent school board members next spring, the final chapter of the revolution at L.A. Unified.

There’s only one problem. Can somebody, anybody, please think up a catchier name for gubernatorial takeover?

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