Voting on a matter in which it has no real say but a decided political stake, the Los Angeles City Council on Friday unanimously endorsed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to gain some control over the city’s public schools.
Though it was a symbolic victory, Villaraigosa treated it as a significant milestone after months of lobbying the council to support a bill in the Legislature that would give him a measure of power over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The 15-0 vote allows Villaraigosa to go to Sacramento next week with the full support of the council and most of the city’s largest business and labor organizations -- and thereby demonstrate the breadth of his support to lawmakers who might have not strong feelings on the matter.
Hearings on the bill will begin Monday in the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee. The measure must clear the Legislature before its Aug. 31 recess or Villaraigosa will have to begin the process again.
Getting the bill through Sacramento has already been an uphill battle for the mayor -- and would have been even more difficult had he failed to sell even his own City Council on the plan.
At a Friday afternoon news conference shortly after the council action, Villaraigosa said it had been “a long time” since he had worked so hard for a vote.
“But I also know that the vote that is going to make or break this legislation is going to happen in Sacramento,” he said.
The political calculation for the council was simple: Either back a popular mayor who has made improving the schools his legacy project or support a school district that many of them have squabbled with, particularly over the siting of new facilities.
The bill “is not perfect but nothing we do is perfect, and if we wait for the perfect solution we’ll lose another couple of generations of children,” Councilman Bernard C. Parks said toward the end of the council’s nearly 3 1/2 -hour discussion.
School board President Marlene Canter addressed the council before the vote.
“I don’t have any notes; I don’t have any speech. I’m going to talk to you from my heart,” said Canter, who praised the mayor for having a passion for the issues of schools.
But, she said, ultimately the bill would only increase the district bureaucracy and give no clear line of authority to the school board, superintendent or the mayor. And she hinted that politics, not policy, was driving the matter.
“I know this is a difficult political conversation; I know it is in Sacramento as well,” Canter said. “There isn’t one legislator I’ve spoken with that says it isn’t flawed.”
The vote Friday was never really in doubt after two council panels voted unanimously Wednesday to support the bill. Even council members who have consistently voiced doubts about the plan came around to it.
“I think it is a symbolic step that we’re taking today to give more impetus to the mayor’s effort,” said Councilman Jan Perry, choosing her words carefully.
“I think it’s a plan with very lofty goals and there’s a long road ahead, and with goodwill we may be able to get there.”
Other council members who had expressed doubts in the past were Alex Padilla and Janice Hahn.
Padilla will probably win election to the state Senate in November but would not begin his term until January. In particular, he has pushed the council to scrutinize the bill in recent weeks, realizing that Villaraigosa had to listen because he couldn’t risk the council’s taking a stand against the legislation.
Padilla and several other council members aired concerns Friday. Among other things, they said that the bill as it stands might violate the state Constitution, that it could make the city liable if someone sued the school district and that it would forbid school board members from hiring their own employees.
“With all the room for improvements in the bill, I’m still willing to give it a chance,” Padilla said after the vote.
Councilman Jose Huizar said the vote to support the bill should not have been surprising, given the politics and substantive issues involved.
“If there is not a role for the City Council in the bill, practically speaking the council will be more involved in education by default, because if it passes, the mayor will also be involved,” said Huizar, a supporter of the mayor and a former Los Angeles Unified board president.
He added: “I decided to go for the bill for two reasons. First, the new structure will be much better; it’s a disastrous system now and has been for decades. Two, next time I vote for mayor, I will consider his accountability for the performance of the LAUSD.”