DOZENS OF PARENTS GATHERED MONDAY outside the 29-story headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District for a demonstration staged by grassroots groups such as ACORN, One L.A. and Green Dot, the charter-school organization taking over Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles. Carrying signs that read “Stop the Waste,” the parents demanded that L.A. Unified stop spending money on high-priced consultants — particularly Darry Sragow, a seasoned political pro who is working as the district’s outside legal counsel and public-relations strategist.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had a few of his own political consultants on hand, ones funded by his powerful fund-raising apparatus. Weaving through the crowd of working-class, primarily Spanish-speaking parents were nattily dressed operatives from the mayor’s 2005 campaign, coordinating with the organizers and distributing anti–L.A. Unified news articles. There was Nathan James, the mayor’s former campaign spokesman, and Michael Trujillo, the 2005 campaign volunteer who made a name for himself by writing anonymously on the Web site known as Mayor Sam, which regularly lobbed chatty if unsigned attacks on Villaraigosa’s enemies during and after the election.
Trujillo and James spent the past few months on the doomed campaign of Proposition 82, the preschool initiative defeated on June 6 despite a barrage of campaign ads featuring — you guessed it — Villaraigosa. But by Monday, they were part of the mayor’s Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability, which is pushing for passage in Sacramento of the mayor’s increasingly complicated plan for L.A. Unified.
L.A. voters never got to vote on mayoral takeover, and it’s equally unlikely there will be an election on the watered-down alternative crafted last week by Villaraigosa and the teachers unions. What there will be, however, is a campaign for the votes of Sacramento legislators. Hours after the demonstration, Villaraigosa’s political committee publicly sprang to life, sending a blast e-mail instructing thousands of supporters to bombard the state Senate’s Education Committee with messages of support for Villaraigosa’s plan.
Not that such a campaign is necessarily needed. With the powerful backing of Senate President Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, Villaraigosa’s plan sailed through the committee easily on a 7-1 vote Wednesday. Democrats, keenly aware that the party’s leadership demanded an aye vote, fell in line on the measure despite a number of misgivings. Most of the committee’s Republicans simply declined to vote. And lawmakers from both parties had trouble grasping where the power in L.A. Unified would shift under Villaraigosa’s plan.
Because so many dramatic changes have been made to the mayor’s education initiative, the bill simply wasn’t the easiest to grasp. For one thing, Villaraigosa’s initiative no longer has a name. It’s not exactly a mayoral takeover anymore, since Villaraigosa pulled back a bit from that goal. It’s not exactly mayoral accountability either, since an elected school board will continue to make policy, at least regarding budgets and, to a lesser degree, curriculum. Villaraigosa’s e-mail blast promised smaller classroom sizes, yet his education bill does not address that topic. Even the e-mail’s mention of better qualified teachers seemed a bit of a stretch, since the Villaraigosa bill only addresses teaching at 36 of the district’s low-performing campuses — the ones where Villaraigosa would attain true control, which make up less than 5 percent of L.A. Unified.
In short, Villaraigosa’s compromise bill for L.A. Unified now stands as one of the strangest initiatives of his year-old administration. Instead of giving the mayor the single line of accountability that he had publicly demanded for so long, the compromise would — if passed — leave Villaraigosa, the superintendent and the elected school board jockeying for power until 2013. Supporters described that as a worthy half measure, one that finally gives the mayor a foot in the door at L.A. Unified. Opponents called it a blueprint for political combat, with the Los Angeles mayor, the 26 other cities within L.A. Unified and the elected school board — not to mention a superintendent who would remain beholden to all three — continually at war, fighting like scorpions under glass over textbooks, budgets and school construction.
Privately, policymakers at City Hall don’t know what to make of the new plan. Is it a face-saving measure for a mayor who simply couldn’t wow Democrats with his vision of mayoral control? Or a coup for reformers who will finally get the camel’s nose under the tent at L.A. Unified? Did the mayor, craving the immediate gratification of a victory from a grateful public, unexpectedly blink? Or did the teachers union leadership sell out members who had voted to oppose takeover? So complicated is the compromise that one week after it was unveiled, no one knows for certain who won.
For reformers, Villaraigosa was the bloodied, if unbowed, victor. Not only had he gotten United Teachers Los Angeles, a powerful foe of mayoral takeover, to join his movement, but he had finally found a way to limit the power of the elected board. “I’m not as pessimistic as most people are about [the plan],” said Green Dot president Steve Barr, who traveled to Sacramento to lobby for its passage. “This at least gets the mayor to the table, if nothing else.”
The architect of Villaraigosa’s education plan went further, saying that any superintendent will now stay or go based on the wishes of Villaraigosa and his Council of Mayors. “I believe a wise and smart superintendent will understand that accountability is with the mayors,” said Thomas Saenz, Villaraigosa’s in-house lawyer.
School-board members unequivocally viewed themselves as the losers, sounding shrill in their outrage at being locked out of the talks between the mayor and the unions. Retiring Superintendent Roy Romer worried that his successor will have too many masters, and that a six-year increase in test scores will be undermined as school sites begin choosing their own curriculum. But the wild card turned out to be UTLA, which is now faced with a breakaway faction that argued the union had ceded too much power to the superintendent.
With the rank and file growing restive, UTLA president A.J. Duffy sent out automated phone calls reassuring members that the plan is good for teachers. Foes within the union responded by saying Duffy never should have cut a deal without conferring with the union’s leadership, and produced a petition demanding an emergency meeting.
“If it’s such a good idea, then it ought to withstand the governance structure of the union,” said union member Paul Huebner, who insisted he has the signatures needed to force a July 12 emergency meeting.
For Villaraigosa, efforts to avoid a ?districtwide election directly caused the plan to become increasingly convoluted. To bypass the voters, Villaraigosa kept the elected school board intact. To avoid violating the Voting Rights Act — which prohibits a Los Angeles mayor from representing the other 26 cities in L.A. Unified — Villaraigosa proposed the Council of Mayors. And to avoid alienating the teachers unions, the mayor promised to shift decisions over curriculum to individual ?school sites.
THE CALIFORNIA SCHOOL BOARD ASSOCIATION sought to lampoon the complexity of the Villaraigosa plan, sending Sacramento lawmakers a flow chart showing the dozens of lines of authority that would be created at L.A. Unified. With its comical, overlapping lines, the association’s chart resembled one used by the medical industry to torpedo Hillary Clinton’s health care plan.
But while the chart clearly spoofs Villaraigosa’s plan, it also includes a kernel of truth. Take, for example, school construction. Under the bill’s second draft, the superintendent would have “all decision-making power” over the $19 billion program for building 160 new schools. Villaraigosa’s Council of Mayors would have oversight over site selection, but the school board would retain the power of eminent domain — voting whether to force private property owners to sell to the district.
A few lawmakers are aghast at such a system. Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman, who represents the San Fernando Valley, said the bill will achieve the opposite of Villaraigosa’s original policy goal, blurring the lines of authority instead of clarifying them. “This is probably the worst solution possible,” he said. “I think previously the mayor was very clear that he wanted to take responsibility and be held accountable. This proposal leaves everyone asking, ‘Who’s in charge?’?”
Richman and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ate lunch last week with Villaraigosa as they tried to hammer out a different sort of compromise. During that meeting, GOP lawmakers proposed a bill that would give the Los Angeles mayor complete control over L.A. Unified, followed by a districtwide vote on the system five years later. That election would have given voters within L.A. Unified two choices: keep mayoral control in place or pursue an even more dramatic shake-up of the system — breaking up L.A. Unified into smaller pieces. Hours later, Villaraigosa met with the unions and opted for a different deal.
The mayor and the unions reached their accord at 11 p.m., and for Villaraigosa, the timing was impeccable. The measure allowed him to secure a hearing before the Senate Education Committee just two days before the Legislature’s midsummer break, the deadline for keeping a legislative proposal alive. Romer, on the other hand, was enraged that he had been cut out.
“[Villaraigosa] likes to make deals,” Romer said. “It was important for him and his image and so he jammed it through at a midnight pajama party. I don’t resent someone for being effective in the use of their power, but education is an important, strategic business, and you don’t improve education by wheeling and dealing at midnight.”
The timing was fortuitous in other ways. Villaraigosa could trumpet his newly crafted compromise at the conclusion of his first year in office, when he would face appraisals of his tenure from nearly every news outlet. Furthermore, the deal was unveiled one day before the Joint Commission on LAUSD Governance — a 30-member citizen panel that spent a year studying school reform — urged Villaraigosa to put any change in school governance on the ballot. Villaraigosa’s noisy announcement drowned out that recommendation.
Meanwhile, key details of the bill are unresolved. As part of his compromise, Villaraigosa asked to take over three of the lowest-performing high schools and all the elementary and middle schools that feed into them. Under the bill, the 36 schools must be selected from different geographic areas. Yet if he picks the three worst, Villaraigosa would take control of Jefferson, Locke and Dorsey — all three in South Los Angeles. The fourth, fifth and sixth worst high schools are also in South L.A., as are the seventh and eighth. For now, Villaraigosa has no criteria for picking those schools.
Which gets back to Villaraigosa’s campaign committee. The mayor’s bill promises that poorly performing schools run by the mayor will be funded by public dollars and private donations. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who threw her support to the compromise last week, said she expects those private donations to come from Villaraigosa’s campaign committee.
Such an effort, said Goldberg, would finally show the dire need for an infusion of funds at schools serving low-income children. “The biggest problem with this whole debate is, it isn’t a question of management and leadership,” she said. “Fundamentally, the system is just completely underfunded. And that means that we’re rearranging the deck chairs.”