Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mayor Villraigosa and L.A. Schools

Legislators OK School Plan; Gov. Vows Approval
Assembly Waffles, Then Gives OK After Intense Lobbying
By Nancy Vogel
Times Staff Writer

August 30, 2006

SACRAMENTO — Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bid for greater control over the Los Angeles Unified School District cleared the Legislature on Tuesday evening and headed for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who praised the mayor for "bold leadership."

"I ask the Legislature to immediately send this bill to my desk so I can sign this measure to give all LAUSD students the quality education they deserve to succeed," Schwarzenegger said in an unusually quick endorsement of legislation.

The bill embodying Villaraigosa's plan for more mayoral involvement in public schools passed the Assembly, its last legislative hurdle, on a 42-20 vote, with 17 members not voting.

The bill passed two hours after an initial vote attracted only 30 "ayes," well below the minimum 41 needed.

That early vote triggered frantic lobbying by Villaraigosa and the friends who wrote his legislation, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).

"This is a big day," said Villaraigosa, who led the Assembly from 1998 to 2000 and is a potential Democratic candidate for governor. "I can tell you, I always knew this would be a tough battle. But the real work begins. The work of putting [together] the broad and comprehensive plan of turning around our schools, the work of building consensus in the city of Los Angeles and the schools to create a new partnership for education reform. I'm very heartened."

Romero described herself as "walking on clouds."

"To me, that vote that was delivered," she said, "it's a vote of hope and a belief that we can do better."

The bill, AB 1381, would shift budget and contracting authority from the seven-member board that sets policy for the Los Angeles Unified School District to the district superintendent.

The bill would also give the Los Angeles mayor and the mayors of the 26 other cities in the district the power to veto the school board's choice of superintendent. And it would give the Los Angeles mayor direct control over about 30 low-performing schools.

Villaraigosa, once a high school dropout, has said he sought the legislation to prevent micromanagement by the school board and to unite parents, teachers and civic leaders to reverse the district's high dropout rate and history of low academic performance. The mayor campaigned on education reform and negotiated the elements of the bill in closed-door meetings with teachers' unions.

District officials have fought hard against Villaraigosa's plan, arguing that it will add layers of bureaucracy, blur accountability and jeopardize the steady academic improvement L.A. Unified students have made in the last five years.

As they have on many days in recent months, Supt. Roy Romer and board President Marlene Canter spent Tuesday making their case to legislators.

After the bill passed the Assembly, district officials sounded a conciliatory note, saying that they would cooperate with Villaraigosa even though they disagreed with his legislation.

"We're going to have to join together and work together," said Romer, who is retiring from the district next month. "I think you've got to put personality aside. You've got to put past competition aside and say, 'Hey look, our job is to work cooperatively and collaborative to improve the education of children in Los Angeles.' "

But even as district officials offered to work with Villaraigosa, they were planning to meet in closed session Thursday to discuss a possible lawsuit to block the legislation.

The bill passed out of the state Senate on Monday on a 23-14 vote, with every Democrat from Los Angeles in support. Two Republican senators also voted for it.

Support was not so solid in the Assembly, where no Republicans voted for the bill and several Los Angeles-area Democrats abstained. They included Mark Ridley-Thomas of Los Angeles, Carol Liu of La Cañada Flintridge and Paul Koretz of West Hollywood, who missed the vote due to illness.

Liu said the changes should have been made by a vote of L.A. Unified residents, not the Legislature.

Ridley-Thomas is on the district's search committee for a new superintendent and said he therefore wanted to avoid taking a public position on the bill.

The Assembly Democrats who initially abstained but then voted for the bill included Jerome Horton of Inglewood, who said he got "personal commitments" from Villaraigosa that the clusters of schools overseen by the mayor will not get more financial backing than other district schools.

"There is a lot in the bill that I think is unconstitutional," Horton said. "I think it goes to the court and I think it gets overturned. But to stimulate the debate about school reform — it serves to do that purpose."

Another Democrat who initially abstained and then voted "aye" was Gloria Negrete-McLeod of Chino, who said she was lobbied by Romero.

"I still have some problems" with the legislation, said Negrete-McLeod, whose district does not include L.A. Unified territory. "But she said that it's only for five years and so if it doesn't work, we'll see that it doesn't work."

Nuñez said that many members were nervous about the bill because it had gotten so much publicity, and many needed to be reassured that the provisions would apply only to L.A. Unified.

"It allows the superintendent the freedom to run the day-to-day operations of the school district without being hamstrung by a school board that oftentimes micromanages that school district," he said.

"These are school board members that have a larger staff than Assembly members and they hold back progress sometimes by getting involved in too much detail," he said.

Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) voted against the bill, as he had said he would, out of fear that the plan would diminish African American influence in the district.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) recused herself from voting for the bill on the Assembly floor and earlier in the day in the Assembly Education Committee, which she heads. She said she is a candidate to replace Romer and recused herself "out of an abundance of caution."

"I've checked — there is no legal conflict of interest," she said, "but I think there's an ethical conflict of interest in choosing between the two sides on this."
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