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District Prepares for Legal Fight With Mayor

Times Staff Writer

Top Los Angeles Unified School District officials signaled their intention Wednesday to file suit against legislation that gives substantial authority over city schools to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The statements came one day after the mayor won a harder than expected battle to pass the bill in the state Legislature.

The looming legal dispute didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Villaraigosa, who addressed about 1,000 students and civic leaders at an independent charter school south of Inglewood.

At Los Angeles schools, though, it was just about business as usual: Villaraigosa’s bill won’t take effect until Jan. 1, even if the legal challenge falls short.

But there is anticipation: from parents, whose views varied widely, and from school staff, whose reactions ranged from undecided to serious concern.

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“I’m disappointed in the legislation,” Virgil Middle School Principal Ada Snethen said. “I don’t think it’s a good bill. And there are legal issues still to clarify. But I’m going to concentrate on my job here with the students.”

Though the litigation threat came as no surprise, schools Supt. Roy Romer insisted that the intent isn’t adversarial.

“The Legislature has made a decision,” Romer said in an interview. “And once the thing is done, I’m the first guy to say, ‘We’ve got a whole new ballgame, and we’ve got to make this work.’ But the question of what’s legal and what isn’t has to be decided. It would be most unfortunate to start down a track and then find out later it’s not legal or not constitutional.”

Romer echoed those sentiments in a letter sent Wednesday to district employees, emphasizing: “Our job is to remain focused on our principal mission -- educating all students at the highest level.”

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Under the legislation, which awaits the promised signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Villaraigosa would gain authority over the district budget and the selection of a superintendent through a council of mayors that he would dominate. He would also get direct authority over three high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools.

A fundamental legal issue is that under the state Constitution, schools must remain part of the state school system. Villaraigosa and his aides maintain that their plan was drawn to satisfy or sidestep all legal obstacles.

“You have to clarify this,” Romer said, “for this district’s benefit and all other school districts.”

Romer’s tack suggested that the school system plans to assemble allies. And school board member David Tokofsky had a list ready: dissatisfied cities in the proposed council of mayors; the county Board of Supervisors, who also are part of this new council; and state schools chief Jack O’Connell -- who opposed the bill. Other possible plaintiffs include the California School Board Assn. and individual parents or parent groups.

The school board is expected to meet Tuesday in closed session to discuss possible litigation.

“The portrayal that L.A. Unified is just going to waste public money by suing is a scandalous argument by those who knew this bill was unconstitutional,” Tokofsky said. “It is a bad bill. It was flawed from the beginning, and it just got worse as it was amended. If the mayor’s office is worried about lost time in litigation, they shouldn’t have pushed an unconstitutional bill.”

Romer said that he isn’t trying to stall -- that it might be possible to settle legal issues by January.

School board President Marlene Canter suggested that the school district would move in two directions. “It’s not that we’ll either litigate or we’ll work together. Both paths will probably happen at once. I’ve been asking to form a partnership with the mayor for some time.”

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At his carefully staged victory rally, an ebullient Villaraigosa offered his own version of what cooperation would mean.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he told a cheering crowd in the parking lot of the Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School. “I have a message for Supt. Romer and the Board of Education. I’m asking you to join our Los Angeles partnership. I’m asking you to reconsider your opposition to change. I’m asking you to come along with us on this historic journey.... Let’s join together in the classroom instead of joining battle in the courtroom. Let’s respect the Legislature’s mandate and the will of the people.”

The people’s will was difficult to discern in the environs of Virgil Middle School, which could qualify as ground zero for the incoming Villaraigosa era. Ostensibly, Virgil is the sort of overcrowded, low-achieving school that the mayor has in mind when he argues for change.

One parent said he hoped to move to Lawndale. “I hear many bad things about these kids,” he said, referring to neighborhood gangs. Wednesday was the first day at Virgil for his sixth-grade son. And the school seemed too crowded.

Virgil has about 2,800 students on a year-round schedule that slices nearly a month off the school year. And its academic achievement ranks in the lowest 10% of schools statewide.

But there are also significant signs that the school is moving in a positive direction, including $4.6 million in recent repairs and renovations. Virgil surpassed last year’s improvement target for schoolwide academic progress and ranks about even in academic achievement to schools with similar student populations.

Among other measures, the school staff has taken part in dropout prevention training, and individual students have been assigned to teams of teachers so they are less likely to fall through the cracks.

Villaraigosa’s initiative is also expected to focus on dropout prevention, including improved tracking of students and more counseling.

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Like numerous parents, Gladys Marroquin had nothing to say about Villaraigosa’s effort, but took a positive impression home from her sixth-grader’s first day, saying that the school looked better and appeared safer. She added that the school district has done well academically with her daughter.

But parent Luis Arteaga applauded the mayor’s efforts because, he said, “It’s not working. They make so many excuses.”

Across the street, though, Fernando Hernandez and his wife found Villaraigosa’s case unpersuasive. His 8-year-old just started school at the new $42.8-million elementary school that faces Virgil. That school, which doesn’t yet have a name, allows 850 students to stay in their neighborhood rather than being bused to less crowded campuses elsewhere. Other new area schools are on the way.

“So far as we have seen,” Hernandez said, “they are working on everything, trying to make the parents feel OK, and the kids.”

Inside the new school, librarian Tori Patterson confessed to mixed feelings. “This seems very personal for the mayor,” she said. “He sees these intractable problems and wants to do something. It seems like a waste to be involved in a turf war, but what he’s wanted to do has been so opaque.”

Snethen worried that sweeping change at the top could result in a detrimental shift of direction: “It might be like starting over. But we’re all here to work together, so I’ll be collaborative and I’ll cooperate and do whatever I have to do.”

Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.


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