MAKING A SHARP TURN in his bid to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Friday that he will likely work to keep the school board intact as a publicly elected body — even as he presses ahead with plans for obtaining the power to hire and fire the superintendent and other top district officials.

Villaraigosa, who told a state legislative panel last year that he wanted the power to appoint all seven school board members, said that he has concluded that such a move would be “patently unconstitutional,” since more than two-dozen cities within L.A. Unified do not have the power to elect the Los Angeles mayor. Instead, Villaraigosa said he is looking at diminishing the role of the school board, by shifting responsibility for top hiring decisions away from the district and into the mayor’s office.

The mayor made his comments weeks before he is scheduled to unveil his reform plan for the school district. As part of his research, Villaraigosa will fly to New York City on Sunday to study the effects of a mayoral takeover of that city’s school system.

“I can’t share with you at this point all of what’s going to be in the [school reform] package. But I can tell you this: Whatever’s in the package will have an elected school board,” said Villaraigosa.

“So I think as we’ve begun to look at this issue — the voting rights, the constitutionality and where people are, I mean, you know that we happened to do some polling on the issue and people feel strongly about an elected school board. But they also feel strongly that the school district is not moving in the right direction and that there isn’t enough in the way of success in our schools right now.”

For nearly a year, the debate over the future of L.A. Unified has been propelled by two major policy pronouncements by Villaraigosa — one during his mayoral campaign, when he said he wanted “ultimate control” of the district, and a second in June, when he told a legislative committee headed by state Senator Gloria Romero that he wanted the power to select the seven-member school board. The debate over mayoral takeover also dominated the March 7 school board election, where the candidate endorsed by Villaraigosa — Monica Garcia — garnered 47.3 percent of the vote.

One school board member described Villaraigosa’s suggestion as the worst of all worlds, in which neither side will have accountability and both sides will take the blame. In that scenario, the school board might craft major education policies yet lack the power to remove a superintendent who fails to implement them, said board member Mike Lansing.

“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, such as Wilmington, Gardena and Lomita. “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.”

School board President Marlene Canter had a much more upbeat response, saying she believed that Villaraigosa had heard from the smaller cities that make up the school district, from West Hollywood and San Fernando to Carson and South Gate.

“I’m just thrilled that he’s recognized reality and that he’s realized that our school district encompasses more than just L.A., that there are 26 other cities and that we can’t take their vote away,” she said.

Elected officials from the smaller cities have complained for months that they would be denied representation under the U.S. Constitution if the Los Angeles mayor obtained the power to appoint school board members. At the same time, voter participation in school board races has been dismal, with no one emerging to challenge three incumbent school board members last year and only 13 percent of registered voters taking part in the March 7 school board election.

Villaraigosa has made public schools the No. 1 issue of his administration, pointing to the district’s dismal high school dropout rate — which hovers between 25 percent and 50 percent, depending on the source of the information. On Friday, Villaraigosa said the school board lacked the resolve to improve student achievement, by reducing bureaucracy and trying new reforms.

“There’s not a commitment and an urgency here,” he said. “When I see the number of kids who are dropping out in this city, when I see how few of them are scoring at the highest end of the achievement scores compared to the rest of the nation, you’re darn right I’m concerned. I have an urgency that, frankly, is very different from the current school board.”

A.J. Duffy, the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, agreed that there is not enough urgency at L.A. Unified. But he warned that mayoral management of the district would actually create more bureaucracy and leave parents confused about who is in charge.

“As a consumer, who do I go to?” Duffy said. “Do I go to the mayor, or to the elected school board that has limited power? So I’m confused.”

LA Weekly