MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA DIDN’T DROP any huge policy bombshells during his three-day Mayoral Takeover tour of New York City’s public-education system. There was a friendly meeting with a teachers’ union representative, a tour of a high-achieving school and the obligatory photo ops with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who now runs his city’s school system.
Each leg of the tour seemed to reinforce Villaraigosa’s belief in his No. 1 policy objective — taking over the Los Angeles Unified School District, a sprawling bureaucracy that encompasses more than two dozen cities stretching from the San Fernando Valley to South Gate.
The problem was, Villaraigosa had upstaged himself days earlier by announcing — or letting slip, depending on whom you ask — that he planned to keep the elected school board after months of talk about appointing them.
Villaraigosa, who first told a state legislative panel last June that he wanted to handpick each of the board’s seven members, suddenly had a new, more nuanced message: Appointing school-board members would deny the voting rights of the 26 other cities in the school district — and, by the way, the idea wasn’t polling so well, either.
Despite the rewritten plot, the mayor managed to stick to the outlines of his original script. He still promised to diminish the school board’s power, even if its members are chosen by the electorate. And he still wants the power to hire and fire the superintendent, as well as oversight of the district’s $6.8 billion operating budget, and maybe even some decisions on the curriculum.
“It’s about saying that one person should be in charge, so that when things go right or wrong, you have one person to blame,” Villaraigosa told KCRW’s Which Way L.A., shortly before flying back to Los Angeles. “Right now you have seven people that point the finger at one another and don’t take responsibility for the fact that half the kids are dropping out of school.”
The irony is, the six school-board members — Mónica García won’t be installed until after the June 6 runoff — have been largely united in their opposition to the mayoral takeover, and in defending the district’s slow but steady progress in raising test scores and building schools. Almost in concert, board members quickly dissected Villaraigosa’s latest school proposal, saying that it would allow some educational decisions to be dictated by City Hall and others left to L.A. Unified.
School-board member Mike Lansing said such a concept would disperse responsibility, not focus it.
“To me, it would almost be like .?.?. the school board picking the police chief, the director of the DWP, the head of Rec and Parks and the rest,” said Lansing, who represents communities on the southern end of the district. “That doesn’t make sense. It wouldn’t hold anybody accountable. We would blame them for making bad selections [of L.A. Unified staff], and they would blame us for making bad decisions.”
The response was even harsher from the Los Angeles Times, which has pressed its editorial foot on the accelerator in the drive toward a mayoral takeover. Even before Friday’s policy shift, Villaraigosa had a somewhat complicated relationship with the city’s largest newspaper, vowing at various moments not to let the paper bully him on the issue of school reform. By the time Villaraigosa showed up for his first appointment in New York City, the newspaper had lobbed its own grenade — an editorial demanding that he go all the way on a mayoral takeover or drop the issue entirely.
At regular intervals, the debate has been propelled forward by the two public pronouncements from Villaraigosa — first during his mayoral campaign, when he said he wanted “ultimate control” of the district, and again in June, when he told a state legislative hearing headed by L.A.’s Democratic state Senator Gloria Romero that he wanted the power to select the school board. Those statements have driven the mayor’s policy agenda and dominated the campaign of the March 7 school-board election, where the candidate endorsed by Villaraigosa — Mónica García — garnered 47.3 percent of the vote.
Villaraigosa actually sped up his takeover bid earlier this year, saying he’d decided to seek control more quickly after viewing a poll from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor that showed him with an 82 percent approval rating. Last week, Villaraigosa said his polling apparatus had produced another key finding: Voters actually like the idea of electing their school-board members — even though, in practice, few of them show up at the polls to do so.
Los Angeles Councilman Alex Padilla, who assembled a 30-member commission to change the governance of L.A. Unified, said he fears the debate over the school district is becoming too dominated by Villaraigosa, whose larger-than-life media presence dramatically increased the civic interest in education. Skeptics also point out that Villaraigosa, who is being touted as a candidate for governor in 2010 or possibly even a vice presidential nominee in 2008, has not committed to a full eight years as mayor and could easily be gone within two years after a mayoral takeover.
“Let’s not confuse mayoral control with Antonio control,” Padilla told the council on Tuesday. “If the city and the school district move in the direction of mayoral control, that’s a systemic change .?.?. and would we be as excited about this proposal if it was Mayor Hahn, if it was Mayor Riordan?”
VILLARAIGOSA, FOR HIS PART, argued that he is the one with the urgency to improve the district. To hammer his point home, the mayor pointed out that Los Angeles provides the district with 88 percent of its students. Representatives of the 26 other cities that make up L.A. Unified counter that they make up one-fifth of the district’s residents. And they sent strong hints to the mayor that he shouldn’t enhance his powers at the expense of an elected school board.
“We just don’t want to be run over,” said West Hollywood Councilman Jeffrey Prang.
Lost in the shuffle, yet again, is the 30-member Commission on LAUSD Governance, which has been studying such proposals as expanding the size of the school board and raising the annual salaries of school-board members beyond the paltry $24,000 they currently receive. Councilman Jose Huizar — a former school-board member himself — said last week that the commission is evenly divided, with one-third supporting mayoral control, one-third supporting a full-time school board and one-third seeking a massive decentralization of the district.
Villaraigosa will send his in-house attorney, Thomas Saenz, to the commission to lay out the mayor’s current views on school governance. That could be just the ticket to finally lure television and print reporters who have missed the commission’s eight months of deliberations but found a way to travel with Villaraigosa to New York.
The mayor won’t be there, however. On Thursday, he will make his own pitch to the mayors of the 26 other cities that belong to the school district. If nothing else, the debate has prompted Prang to propose one microscopic reform — dropping “Los Angeles” from the name of the school district.
“If we called it ‘Metropolitan Unified,’ people would know it’s not tied to one city or another,” he said.