Friends face off in legal fight over L.A. Unified

The high-stakes head-butting that that will rock Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs' courtroom Friday promises plenty of entertainment for fans of arcane constitutional argumentation.

The rest of us can amuse ourselves with a side story featuring two of Los Angeles' most aggressive education-oriented attorneys -- longtime allies who swear they're still friends even though they've been eye-gouging on opposing sides of the ugly legal battle over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to gain a measure of control over California's largest school district.

Thomas Saenz, 40, counsel to the mayor, is the architect of that power grab. Lawyer friends say he's brilliant, shy outside a courtroom and so serious that his jokes sometimes leave people disoriented.

Kevin Reed, 42, general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, cooked up the legal strategy for fighting the bill that the mayor's team ramrodded through Sacramento last summer. Lawyer friends say he's brilliant, quick to throw a barbecue and adept with witticisms.

Until recently, the two lawyers have been like ideological twins, skipping along close parallel career paths that led from Ivy League law schools to high-level civil rights litigation. Now they're symbols of the divergent loyalties that have, at least temporarily, fractured the city's liberal power elite into sub-camps.

Let's put aside the probability of appeals and possibility of compromise.

If Saenz's side prevails, the mayor will, on New Year's Day, become grand pooh-bah of education in Los Angeles and the 26 surrounding communities that comprise the district.

If Reed's team gets all its holiday wishes, the mayor will have no official role in overseeing the education of the district's more than 700,000 students.

The legal confrontation hinges on such issues as whether the Legislature violates the California Constitution by moving power from the district's school board to other authorities (including the mayor), whether that robs some people of their right to elect school representatives with meaningful power, and whether L.A. voters intended to pay the mayor for running something other than the city.

What's interesting to me, though, is the insight that Saenz's and Reed's maneuvering offers on how Los Angeles feels about educating its children.

Saenz's father graduated from Roosevelt High and later worked for the city Department of Water and Power. His mother, a Belmont High graduate, was a secretary in the Alhambra school district, where Saenz and his brother received their K-12 education.

Saenz's ethnicity was sufficiently unclear to me that I had to ask: "Are you, uh, Latino?"

He is. After graduating summa cum laude from Yale University in 1987, earning his law degree at Yale Law School in 1991, and clerking for a couple of judges, he began working his way through the ranks of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund as a civil rights attorney.

I'm sufficiently sure that Reed's a white guy that I didn't bother asking. He grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich. His dad was a lawyer, his mom a teacher, and he, too, went to public schools (the district bused him to the African American part of town, he says).

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Virginia in 1986, and Harvard Law School in 1989. He too clerked, then began working his way through the ranks of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Education Fund. His children are second- and sixth-graders in Los Angeles Unified schools.

At MALDEF, Saenz served as lead counsel in the organization's successful fight to overturn the California proposition that barred illegal immigrants from receiving public services, including education, and he led the charge -- less successfully -- in defense of bilingual education.

At the NAACP, Reed specialized in cases that ran the gamut from police abuse to housing discrimination. After six years, he moved on to Strumwasser & Woocher, where he plunged into education law, litigating on behalf of poor minority students and eventually serving as outside counsel to the school district.

The two men found themselves on the same side of many lawsuits over the years, including Godinez vs. Davis, a landmark case that successfully challenged the state's tendency to hand out cash for new construction to suburban districts at the expense of urban schools.

Ask either attorney to spout his core philosophy of education and you hear an echo: Both are outraged that society still allows social and economic inequities and racial bigotry to hobble some students while other students thrive. Both want children treated as individuals and pushed to fulfill their potential regardless of ethnicity. Both think children have a right to a great education.

Saenz left MALDEF to join the mayor's team last year, in part because of his concern for students. "I agree with the mayor when he says this is the civil rights issue of the 21st century," he says. Saenz supports the mayor's efforts to seize control of the educational hierarchy because he believes it's the only way to shake the status quo out of its stupor. "The key," he says, "is strong leadership and accountability, a clear message.... Not just that you want to change the culture but that it will change."

When Reed began working for the district, he was shocked, he says, and wouldn't have stayed if things hadn't changed.

But as he worked with former Supt. Roy Romer's team to push through bond measures, and saw new campuses rising in poor and minority areas as a result, he began to believe that systemic reforms could be spurred from within.

"Seeing this tremendous transfer of wealth that allows $19 billion of peoples' money to go to educational infrastructure -- almost entirely for poor kids -- makes it very easy to believe in this job and this Board of Education's ability to make profoundly meaningful changes," he says.

Hordes of private and public lawyers are representing an array of parties on either side in this litigation, and Saenz won't even be arguing in court. But more than a few observers clearly think of the complex case as Saenz vs. Reed.

"Watching them as two gladiators, as opposed to allies on the same side, is kind of exhilarating in a way," says attorney and education reform advocate Connie Rice. "Seeing two of your best-trained friends go against each other professionally is fun."

Legal issues aside, the mayor's bill -- with its concessions to the teachers union and muddled chains of command -- is lousy. The district, meanwhile, remains bloated and oblivious to the frustrations it continues to inflict on students, parents, teachers and principals.

Still, many education obsessives see cause for encouragement in the fight itself.

Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation and a supporter of the mayor's plan, puts it like this: "A lot of people had given up on public education.... This debate has given [the] public the sense that there are alternatives and that people care deeply enough to fight for them."


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