Is This the Part They Call Reform? 

Villaraigosa doesn’t win a decisive victory, and one of his own candidates is already minimizing his role

Wednesday, Mar 7 2007

IF ONLY THERE WERE A WAY we could freeze this moment in Los Angeles politics. Just for a year, maybe two. One day after the school board election, voters finally found themselves with perhaps the perfect resolution to the 20-month, yet seemingly endless, battle between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles Unified School District. That’s because suddenly, neither side had the upper hand.

Tuesday’s election results showed that even after he poured $1.5 million into his three chosen candidates, Villaraigosa had, for the time being at least, failed to obtain a four-seat majority on the school board. Yet United Teachers Los Angeles, the employee union that spent $975,000 to preserve its own grip on L.A. Unified, also found it lacked a majority. Ah, sweet impasse!

The UTLA had three seats, compared to Villaraigosa’s two. The remaining two school board races now head to a May runoff election that will pit prosecutor Tamar Galatzan against school board member Jon Lauritzen in the San Fernando Valley and retired schools Superintendent Richard Vladovic against former school principal Neal Kleiner in the southernmost section of L.A. Unified.

click to flip through (3) Already scowling: School board winner Yolie Aguilar celebrated by dumping on her backer, the mayor. (Photos by Orly Olivier)
  • Already scowling: School board winner Yolie Aguilar celebrated by dumping on her backer, the mayor. (Photos by Orly Olivier)

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Voters will have to wait two more months to see whether Villaraigosa — backed by the contributions of business leaders and real estate developers — can install a new school board that will do what a judge wouldn’t: let him run three of L.A. Unified’s low-performing high schools and maybe even remake the district’s governing structure. Villaraigosa, you may recall, failed to implement his Sacramento school-takeover bill once a Superior Court judge declared it unconstitutional.

In other words, the first round of election 2007 saw a murky, confusing campaign come to a murky, confusing end. No one seemed sure who was on which side in the school board smack-down, with Villaraigosa and the UTLA — long-standing allies going back two decades — obscuring their true allegiances and avoiding a direct confrontation in every school board race but one.

Officially, Villaraigosa had fielded three candidates — county executive Yolie Flores Aguilar on the Eastside, Vladovic in the South and Galatzan in the Valley. Yet Team Villaraigosa was also not-so-secretly rooting for a fourth contender: charter-school executive Johnathan Williams, a man Villaraigosa favored in South Los Angeles but could not endorse directly for fear of provoking a backlash from the city’s African-American political establishment.

To confuse matters further, voters who made Villaraigosa’s candidates the clear front-runners also overwhelmingly passed Charter Amendment L, a measure that creates a school board “compensation committee” — a panel designed to boost the pay of board members and nudge them toward full-time status. Villaraigosa voted for Measure L even though his own school bill clearly sought to strip the school board of its power.

If his bill is upheld by a higher court, L.A. Unified could see a day when the school board has far less authority even as it is paid, uh, considerably more. Is this the part they call reform?

Villaraigosa, for his part, said he supported Measure L because it would make it easier for the public to track and limit campaign fund-raising by school board members. Yet nothing in the measure would increase disclosure for the campaign committees that raise six-figure donations on behalf of school board candidates — groups such as the mayor’s Partnership for Better Schools.

By Monday, the mayor’s committee had dropped a whopping $1.2 million into Galatzan’s campaign, all for a post that pays $24,000 annually. That added up to roughly $95 per vote — a sum that doesn’t even count the money Galatzan spent from sources other than the mayor.

Standing outside Galatzan’s election-night party, Villaraigosa insisted that Measure L would allow him to scale back the school board’s duties, leaving most of the big decisions to L.A. Unified’s superintendent. The mayor even hinted that school board members are making too much money as it is.

“I don’t think that they should be compensated at the rate they’re currently compensated,” Villaraigosa said. “If you look at the L.A. County Board of Education, I think they get $100 or $150 per meeting. The problem with the school board is that it has been full-time.”

Yet as the ballots were being tallied, one of Villaraigosa’s own candidates signaled that she isn’t all that keen about seeing her duties disappear under a Villaraigosa scenario. Aguilar, who handily defeated middle-school teacher Bennett Kayser in the mostly Latino district stretching from Silver Lake to South Gate, said she saw no need for Villaraigosa to diminish the school board’s role now that a new slate of board members is taking office.

“I certainly don’t want those powers diminished,” Aguilar declared at her victory party.

Indeed, Aguilar seemed only partly in sync with Villaraigosa’s agenda. Aguilar said she welcomes Villaraigosa’s involvement in three low-performing high schools and promised to ask her colleagues to reconsider its legal challenge to the mayor’s bill once she takes office in July.

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