MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA had reason to worry from the moment his legal team stepped into a courtroom to defend its plan for L.A.’s public schools. For one thing, the judge reviewing the legality of Villaraigosa’s mayoral takeover law had an uncanny rapport with L.A. Unified’s legal team. “You’re awfully good at ad-libbing,” Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs cooed at one point to Fred Woocher, a lawyer for L.A. Unified. “You’re way ahead of me, judge,” Woocher offered unctuously a few minutes later, as he complimented Janavs on her line of inquiry.
Even worse for the mayor were the questions posed by Janavs during the December 15 hearing on the mayor’s public-school law. Such as: If the state Legislature can hand public schools over to the mayor, why not turn the county’s jails over to Police Chief William Bratton? Can one part of the bill be rejected, or must the whole thing be overturned? And, perhaps most distressing for the mayor, what deals had been cut to get the thing passed?
“How do I sort out what was quid pro quo for what?” she asked.
All those pesky questions were downright tame, however, compared to the bitch slap Janavs delivered to Team Villaraigosa on Friday, handing them a 23-page ruling that served as an outright legal repudiation of AB 1381, the state law that gave the mayor veto power over the hiring of a new superintendent and, more importantly, control of three clusters of low-performing schools. Janavs sided decisively with L.A. Unified, calling Villaraigosa’s education law unconstitutional and saying, ominously, that it lacked the protections needed to prevent an abuse of power by the mayor.
The judge even strayed into the policy arena, saying she did not see how the bill would achieve its stated goal — improving the quality of public education. And she saw no way to remove any of its component parts, since the whole thing was the product of some serious horse-trading in Sacramento.
“There is substantial evidence that passage of [the bill] was the result of political compromise and that its provisions are so interconnected and so critically dependent on one another that no single provision would have been enacted or given effect without the whole,” Janavs wrote.
It made sense that Janavs’ ruling came at the end of the year, just 10 days before Villaraigosa’s school bill was supposed to go into effect. After all, the mayor had devoted enormous staff time, political clout and at least $1.1 million in campaign contributions during 2006 to get the complicated bill to the governor’s desk. The mayor’s legal team, led by in-house lawyer Thomas Saenz, had worked vigorously to slalom around the electorate, refusing first to let voters in Los Angeles change the City Charter, then declining to ask voters in California to rewrite the State Constitution — moves to include the electorate that would have given the mayor clear, unambiguous legal authority over L.A. schools.
Instead, however, the mayor cut deal after deal, Sacramento-style, making one set of changes to placate the powerful teachers union, another to reassure a Republican in Palmdale, a third to mollify state Senator Martha Escutia in the Huntington Park area, and so on. He created the ultraconfusing 32-member Council of Mayors to avoid disenfranchising L.A. Unified parents who don’t actually live in L.A. And he neutered, but specifically did not eliminate, the school board — sidestepping the City Charter, which calls for an elected board to manage the district.
Villaraigosa even sought to reassure city types that L.A. Unified would not become a money pit, adding a provision that would shift all legal liability for the new law to the school district, even regarding campuses that the mayor would directly oversee. That, in turn, made the law even more vulnerable to a challenge, with school district lawyers arguing that the mayor had obtained power without responsibility.
In the days that led up to the ruling, both sides entertained the possibility that Janavs would preserve at least some of Villaraigosa’s law. Indeed, the mayor’s team signaled that it would not be distraught over losing the proposed Council of Mayors, which was mostly window-dressing. That cumbersome panel, assigned to review L.A. Unified’s budget and ratify the hiring of future superintendents, would have included five county supervisors and an assortment of council members from puny suburbs like Lomita and West Hollywood, none of whom would have had any real power once Villaraigosa controlled 83 percent of the vote.
The so-called cluster schools were another matter, however. By now, Villaraigosa had invested his manhood in showing that he could kick L.A. Unified’s ass on its core mission — education — by pouring money and smarts into three low-performing high schools, plus the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.
For Villaraigosa, turning those schools around would give him bragging rights over L.A. Unified while teaching his colleagues an important lesson: namely, that the mayor should have been given control of every school in the first place. And, of course, improving three struggling high schools would look spiffy on Villaraigosa’s résumé when he runs for governor in 2010.
When the ruling gave L.A. Unified a clean sweep, Villaraigosa did what he does so well: He got in front of cameras and looked like a winner. He scheduled a post-ruling press conference at 5 p.m. to make sure that his defiant message was carried live on the evening news. He vowed to take his case directly to the California Supreme Court and promised to elect his own slate of school board members — a group that could, conceivably, vote to pull the school district out of the lawsuit.
“Make no mistake about it, we intend to make our case at the ballot box as well,” Villaraigosa declared. “We’ll be supporting candidates in the March 6 school board election who are committed to leading school reform.”
Yet even as he promised to engineer a state audit of L.A. Unified, Villaraigosa kept mouthing the word partnership, the marketing slogan applied to his public-school plan, as though it would erase the impression that the two sides are at war. School board president Marlene Canter did the same, talking about her desire for teamwork even though the skirmish is spreading from Sacramento to the courtroom to the voting booth.
The latest responses to Janavs’ ruling show just what a pissing match the whole thing has become. An hour before Villaraigosa went on camera, Canter tried to put a warm, conciliatory face on L.A. Unified’s first-strike victory. During her press conference, Canter described how she telephoned the mayor personally — adding that she still believes the two sides can work together in the coming months.
Yet her deferential message was repeatedly undermined by catcalls from school board members David Tokofsky and Julie Korenstein, who hissed much more confrontational words about Team Villaraigosa, even while standing on each side of Canter. Korenstein made clear she has no interest in any compromise gestures, like handing Villaraigosa the keys to a low-performing high school, while Tokofsky demanded that the city’s Department of Water and Power repay the district $100 million as part of an ongoing lawsuit over past utility bills.
Tokofsky had already sent out a nasty-gram a week earlier, using the L.A. Times op-ed page to argue that the mayor’s law assembled “a convoluted hodgepodge of government officials who know little about education.” The piece conveniently ran on the day Janavs heard arguments on the case. But by then, the mayor delivered his own pissy kiss-off to Tokofsky, leveling a parting shot at the school board veteran hours after Tokofsky abandoned his board re-election campaign.
In a bygone era, a Los Angeles mayor might have sought a more graceful victory against Tokofsky, thanking him for his 12 years of low-paid public service even as he acknowledged that the two men had sharp policy differences.
Instead, the mayor did the equivalent of a jig on Tokofsky’s political corpse, assigning a spokeswoman to tell the L.A. Times that Tokofsky had finally realized what everyone else knew — that “incumbent school board members can no longer defend the status quo.”
Forget that the mayor had, at that point, already won a round by edging Tokofsky out of the March 6 school board race. Why take the high road when you can rub salt in the wound of your enemy?
Or, to put it another way, ain’t partnership grand?