MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA’S top legal adviser sat down this week with a dozen reporters, methodically walking them through each of the 81 long-awaited wording changes to the mayor’s legislative plan for the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the presentation also served a second purpose — as a primer on how to thoroughly screw a school board.
Speaking in the emotion-free verbiage of a law professor, attorney Thomas Saenz said the Gloria Romero Education Reform Act of 2006 will allow the school board to approve the superintendent’s budgets, yet deny it the ability to vote on line-item expenditures. The bill will let the board hire a superintendent, yet allow the mayor to reject its choice. And while the board will technically still exist, individual members won’t even be allowed to hire their own staff — a change that will keep them more focused on policy, Saenz dryly noted.
That last proposal stunned even some power brokers at City Hall, who argued that school board members should at least be able to hire people best suited to them. Forcing them to choose from a constantly changing office pool seemed especially vindictive.
In fact, it was Villaraigosa’s rough treatment of the school board — cutting a late-night deal with United Teachers Los Angeles to diminish their power — that caught the eye of one of the mayor’s closest allies, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles. Waters spoke out last week, telling an audience of 300 at Manual Arts High School that while she had no position on Villaraigosa’s bill, she was deeply unhappy with the mayor’s handling of school reform.
With Saenz onstage only three chairs away, Waters chastised Villaraigosa for neglecting to seek her advice, shutting out school board members and fast-tracking the bill, which faces an August 31 deadline for passage. Waters called on the mayor to slow down his school campaign long enough to work collaboratively with board members, community leaders and parents. The advice had a bit of an edge to it, considering Waters and much of the African American political establishment played such a pivotal role in Villaraigosa’s 2005 victory.
“You can tell that I’m annoyed,” said Waters, pausing regularly so her remarks could be translated into Spanish. “I’m annoyed with our friend the mayor. I’m annoyed with my friends UTLA, for cutting a deal to begin with.”
“It has been said that this is a fait accompli,” Waters soon added, “and that it is going to move very quickly after August 14,” the day the bill goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee. “If they don’t attempt to slow this down and involve the community, I will use whatever money I have in my campaign to get buses and take them to Sacramento.”
Waters’ threat did the trick. Within 24 hours, a chastened mayor called the congresswoman to discuss his bill, inviting her and other black leaders to meet privately on Thursday, the day the L.A. Weekly is published. Still, Saenz strongly disagreed with Waters’ characterization, saying the mayor had worked hard to involve parents, the school board and even Waters. “We’ve been reaching out for a year,” he said.
The mayor met as recently as Friday with school board president Marlene Canter, a hush-hush session orchestrated by newly hired Deputy Mayor Ramon Cortines. Asked why Waters sees the mayor as uncommunicative, Saenz added, “That’s because Maxine is talking to school board members who say that,” he said. “I’m not saying we’ve spoken to every school board member. That’s because some have been more . . .” He paused. “We’ve spoken with the leadership, certainly.”
Waters is not the only high-profile African American politician to signal displeasure. U.S. Representative Diane Watson came out against the bill last month, saying she disagreed with plans for diminishing the school board’s power. Weeks earlier, County Supervisor Yvonne Burke said she doesn’t want high schools in her South Los Angeles supervisorial district to be part of an experimental mayoral pilot project. Even Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks, a major ally from the 2005 campaign, has been silent on the proposal, despite the mayor’s efforts to get him on board.
From the beginning, Villaraigosa’s strategy for taking on L.A. Unified hinged on Sacramento. He wooed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger early on, securing a promise to sign his L.A. Unified bill, and locked in the two politicians who can apply pressure to wavering Democrats — Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Don Perata.
THINGS TURNED OUT TO BE MESSIER 400 miles to the south, however, with South Los Angeles proving one of the more difficult areas to win over. In that section of the city, the mayor’s strongest allies may be the African American clergy. When the mayor discussed his plan with two dozen ministers last week, the group responded warmly, said the Rev. Frederick Murph, senior minister at Brookins Community African Methodist Episcopal Church. “I commend the mayor for having the intestinal fortitude to take it on,” Murph said.
Still, one community group voiced doubts, warning that Villaraigosa is politicizing the education system. “You see Villaraigosa withholding his endorsement of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate until he gets his bill signed by Schwarzenegger,” said the Reverend Eric P. Lee, who heads the Los Angeles office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Or at least there’s the appearance of that. Let me say it that way.”
Lee’s group hosted the meeting where Waters accused the mayor of hijacking another school bill and tacked his proposal onto it. “Como se dice stolen?” Waters asked the translator at one point. She also said Villaraigosa had neglected to discuss his reform plans with Danny Bakewell, publisher of the African American weekly newspaper The Los Angeles Sentinel.
“He knew where we were when we supported him for office,” Waters said. “We’re anxious to talk to him. We feel as if our friend should have reached out to us early on.”
Saenz disagreed that the bill was hijacked, saying bills regularly go through the gut-and-amend process in Sacramento. “To those who may not be familiar with the legislative process, it may seem like that. But it’s really not. I don’t accept that it was any sort of hijacking,” he said.
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Bakewell did not return calls seeking comment. But Waters said she too is looking forward to seeing the mayor, even as she repeated her fears that the bill is moving too rapidly.
“If it takes you out of this legislative session, then so be it,” said Waters from Connecticut, as she campaigned Saturday on behalf of Ned Lamont, the businessman who unseated Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary Tuesday. “I’m not saying that’s what he must do, but I’m saying slow it down.”
Saenz, by contrast, managed to generate new momentum for the school plan, showing off changes to the bill that seek to shift all legal liability for the new governance system from the city to L.A. Unified. Kevin Reed, the attorney for the school district, called the changes the worst of all possible worlds, giving the mayor control without any of the legal responsibilities.
But then, the school district may have misunderstood the changes. When Superintendent Roy Romer’s top aide, Lucy Okumu, tried to sit in on Saenz’s briefing, an aide to Villaraigosa abruptly hustled her out the door.