The mayor goes to school


BECAUSE HE IS THE CONSUMMATE politician, there were certain things Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa couldn’t say Tuesday evening. Delivering his first State of the City address, he focused on his plan to take control of the school district, but he did not use the words “takeover” or “control,” at least in reference to himself. Nor did he criticize the teachers union or the school board, the two constituencies most likely to place obstacles in his way.

The mayor may not be able to say it, but we can: The school board, which has proved ineffective, would be next to useless after the mayor assumes direct control of the district. The teachers union is needlessly combative. And the Legislature, whose approval Villaraigosa will need to make his plan a reality, should work with him to bring about changes that would improve the district’s governance and accountability.

The mayor’s ingenious plan would give a “council of mayors,” made up of Villaraigosa and mayors of the 27 other cities within the school district, the authority to hire and fire the superintendent and approve the district’s budget. Members of the council would have power proportionate to their constituency, which means that Villaraigosa would have 80% and the other 27 mayors would get the rest.


That’s one impolitic fact the mayor didn’t mention. He was also typically diplomatic about his justifiable emasculation of the school board, which he would essentially convert from a policymaking body into an advisory panel. It would be preferable to eliminate the board, but Villaraigosa and his lawyers believe that retaining a board, much like accommodating the other mayors, enhances the plan’s prospects of surviving a legal challenge.

Villaraigosa worked hard to make the board sound important, saying he would “refine and redefine its responsibilities” and put it “directly in service of L.A.’s parents.” Yet its responsibilities would be vastly reduced: It would oversee disciplinary appeals, act as an ombudsman for parents and issue something called an “accountability report card.”

The mayor saved his final words for teachers, saying he knew that his proposal would -- understatement alert -- “raise some concern and spark some controversy.” Villaraigosa tried just about every trick in his rhetorical book to gain classroom cred, invoking his status as a high school dropout saved by a teacher, a former employee of the teachers union and the husband of a teacher.

The mayor’s congenital need for consensus is for the most part admirable. But he seemed nervous Tuesday night, his voice quavering uncharacteristically. He has reason to be; the changes he proposes will antagonize some powerful interests. And his plan is awkward in some ways (a council of mayors could rival the U.N. for efficiency) and timid in others (a sunset provision that would schedule a reprise of this fight in six years is unnecessary). But it may be the most ambitious feasible plan, or the most feasible ambitious plan, for holding the schools accountable.

And if anyone has the political skill to stitch together the coalition necessary to pull this off, it may well be Antonio Villaraigosa.