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Question of Stability

FROM THE MOMENT Mayor AntonioVillaraigosa won the mayoral election, the whispers began at Los Angeles International Airport: Kim Day, the top official in charge of the airport agency, was a marked woman. It made sense — Day had embraced an $11 billion plan for remodeling LAX that Villaraigosa detested and, in the minds of some airport insiders, was too close to the man Villaraigosa had just defeated, former Mayor James Hahn.

Sure enough, in late September, Villaraigosa’s in-house attorney, Thomas Saenz, showed up at Day’s door with another mayoral aide to deliver a clear message — resign or be fired. With no cards to play, Day stepped down.

Fast-forward six months. Saenz, now Villaraigosa’s top lieutenant on his planned takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District, went before a 30-member citizen commission last week to make his case for letting the mayor — not the seven-member school board — hire and fire the superintendent. Throughout his pitch, Saenz hammered on one key argument: An elected mayor would bring stability to the district by giving the superintendent full support — freeing the top dog to embark on meaningful, groundbreaking change.

Some in the room weren’t buying it. How could Saenz, who helped the mayor remove the airport’s top executive after the election, argue that school-board elections brought instability to L.A. Unified? And didn’t Saenz play a role in the firing of another city department head, Guerdon Stuckey, whose removal had been promised by Villaraigosa on the campaign trail? (When a top official gets the ax at City Hall, Saenz is usually in the room for legal ballast, sort of like a Grim Reaper who’s really well versed on the City Charter.)

“With every change in the governing board, with every change in the superintendent, there is a change in direction,” Saenz said. “You lack persistence. You lack consistency.”

So began the most lively public debate so far over the planned takeover of L.A. Unified, a concept repackaged by Villaraigosa as “mayoral responsibility.” With roughly a dozen people in the audience, the Joint Commission on LAUSD Governance — a panel created by the City Council and the school board, but largely ignored by the public — grilled Saenz over the long-term effects of pushing educational decisions out of the district headquarters and into the corridors of City Hall.

For some commissioners, mayoral elections look plenty unstable. Nine months into his term, Villaraigosa has forced out two department heads, ejected scores of commissioners and presided over a half-dozen other regime changes — most recently, the abrupt resignation of Greg Nelson, who lacked a stirring endorsement from the mayor as he ran the city’s system of neighborhood councils. Commissioner Bill Clay, an appointee of board member Marguerite LaMotte, flatly told Saenz: “I hear words, but I don’t see facts.

“I disagree with you totally that mayoral control would not cause a change in leadership,” he went on. “This is politics.”

School-board member Julie Korenstein, who joined the board almost two decades ago, sounded equally unconvinced that the major factor undermining reform is too much turnover. Korenstein, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, pointed to Superintendent Roy Romer, who is wrapping up his sixth year in charge of the district.

“I have served long enough to see four mayors now,” Korenstein added. “But interestingly, Romer has been here for three mayors.”

The Commission on Governance was created last summer, just as the issue of school reform was heating up, and modeled roughly after the process used to reform the City Charter in the late 1990s. But its work has been almost completely eclipsed by the mayor, who identified school reform as the No. 1 issue on his policy to-do list.

Until now, the mayor has relied largely on his own charisma, and a dismal dropout rate, to sell the public on a school-district takeover. But while Villaraigosa insists that he alone brings a sense of urgency to the school district’s problems, he is also walking a fine line. If he is too closely identified with the proposal, then mayoral takeover is no longer about changing the system, it is about Villaraigosa himself. And what happens to the district when he leaves in two, four or eight years?

SAENZ, A CIVIL-RIGHTS ATTORNEY who made his mark working for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, provided the commission with few new details about how the mayor would structure a takeover. But he did offer a preview of the arguments that will likely be used to advance the cause of a mayoral takeover in the state Legislature and in a districtwide election.

While he praised Romer for his success in building 55 new schools, Saenz also sought to undermine that accomplishment, by portraying it as an aberration from the district’s normal way of doing business. New-school construction would not have happened, Saenz told the commission, without a “perfect storm” of agitation and advocacy. So far, that argument has infuriated district officials, who argue that they played some role in the passage of four school-construction bond measures worth $19 billion.

Saenz also described public schools as the most important activity of government, saying it no longer makes sense to keep city and school bureaucracies separate from one another. And he argued that the superintendent needs “the unwavering support of one individual” to pursue persistent, consistent reform. But he also hedged, saying there is no guarantee that any change in district governance — even the arrival of a mayor — will increase student achievement to the degree that is needed.

Villaraigosa won’t complete his plan for mayoral takeover until later this spring. But even his longtime allies have begun urging him to reach out to those who are growing dismayed by the takeover talk. Commissioner Mary Rose Ortega, who serves as Villaraigosa’s appointee to the governance commission, told Saenz that she is having trouble reassuring the teachers and other school employees who were some of the mayor’s biggest allies.

Said Ortega, “I need more than what you’re giving me to tell people that he’s not just hungry for power”


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