Mayor goes back to school

While mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was off and running this week with a promising venture to remake a group of needy schools, his handpicked majority on the school board was stumbling through an embarrassing breach of transparency -- proving that although the ground is fertile for change at the Los Angeles Unified School District, not everything is coming up roses.

The mayor has a tentative agreement with the school district to give him about 20 low-performing schools to improve. His vision is customarily grand, encompassing school uniforms, empowered teachers and, yes, even healthcare. At least Villaraigosa has both the coalition-building and fundraising skills to make it happen.

Critics will complain, with some justification, that the mayor will be showering his affection and considerable resources on a few schools while so many are in need. But it represents a chance for real progress for more than 30,000 students -- close to 5% of the district's enrollment. At this point, anything that can radically shift the educational future of that many students is welcome.

Sadly, while the mayor was gaining union concessions so teachers can take on new roles, the new school board he helped elect was quietly handing $35 million, most of it in health benefits, to 2,000 part-time cafeteria workers.

The giveaway was hidden under innocuous wording in the board's agenda about lengthening cafeteria work shifts so kids would have more time to eat. In fact, the shifts were expanded to qualify the employees for health benefits. The district's budget is already in trouble, and neither the board nor administrators know where to find this money.

This is a bad start for a new board that ran on promises of transparency and pushing more money into the classroom. We agree that health insurance is an important social issue, and we would like to see the schools extend vital benefits to all employees. But this has to be done in a fiscally responsible manner, by first reforming the district's burdensome benefits package to free up funds.

Even worse, though, is continuing the longtime tradition of pretending that something for adults is really about the kids. This just confirms the ongoing perception that no matter who sits on the governing board, it's the union bosses who run the L.A. schools.

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