Mayor directing school funds

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is steering money to the schools he seeks to control, announcing Wednesday that a major telecommunications company has pledged $1 million for after-school programs on those campuses.

Under the terms of the agreement between Verizon and the nonprofit LA’s BEST program, the money can be spent only on the clusters of schools the mayor seeks to control as part of a new law giving him increased authority in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“We’re directing and focusing resources in a strategic way,” Villaraigosa said as he rushed off from a tightly scripted midmorning news conference at Sylmar Elementary School. “You’re going to see a lot more participation on the part of the business community in support of our education reform efforts, it’s as simple as that.”


But to critics of the mayor’s months-long, acidic battle to wrest some control from the district’s seven-member Board of Education, news of the gift was anything but simple.

They said Verizon’s check, plus an additional $1 million given recently by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, raises troubling questions about fairness and possible dissension between schools if the new law survives legal challenges and goes into effect Jan. 1.

“We are disappointed by the strings the mayor apparently has woven in,” said Kevin Reed, general counsel for L.A. Unified. “It is a shift away from the partnership ideal, where the money goes to the kids who need it the most and instead is driven only to where the mayor wants. His schools will be ‘haves,’ while district schools will be ‘have-nots.’ ”

The mayor’s office fired back at such charges. Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for Villaraigosa, said the mayor was committed to increase funding for all district schools but “is going to be unapologetic about bringing more resources into the cluster schools, which will be some of the lowest performing. He sees them as an opportunity to show you can change the equation in schools that far too many people have given up on.”

Such comments contradict those of the mayor’s top education advisor, Ramon C. Cortines, who told a teachers union gathering last month that these schools would not be “exclusive” and that they would not receive “special treatment.” Cortines was in New York City on Wednesday meeting with more potential donors, Erickson said.

On Friday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments to the reform law in a lawsuit brought by the school board, parents groups and others. They contend that the law, including the section that calls for the mayor to take control of three high schools and the clusters of campuses that feed into them, violates the state Constitution. The mayor has not identified the schools yet but is assembling a team to help run them.

If the judge issues an injunction against the law or strikes it down, LA’s BEST would still keep the donation. If the law is upheld, the program would pour the money into two of the mayor’s clusters and “blitz” those schools, offering students a menu of some of their most successful academic, arts and sports programs, said Carla Sanger, the group’s president and chief executive officer.

“We want to show what happens when you have all the possibilities and you have the funding ... for all the best we know how to do in one place,” she said.

The program, started in 1988 by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, has grown into an expansive, well-respected organization that offers tutoring and recreation activities after school each day to more than 26,000 low-income students on 168 campuses. It relies on a mix of public funds from the district and city and private contributions to meet its nearly $28-million budget.

The size of the donation marked a notable step up for Verizon, which has given about $175,000 to the program in the past -- most of it in 2001, when it made a $150,000 contribution. The company has no new deals pending before the city, according to a company spokesman, but has an existing $20-million contract to install communication systems in city buildings.

Verizon executive Tim McCallion, a close friend of the mayor who has contributed to his election campaigns, said it was important for the company to support the mayor’s reform plan. The hope, he said, is that the cluster schools will produce results that can be implemented elsewhere.

Sanger acknowledged the restrictions on the donation but echoed McCallion, saying she believes the clusters could be “a laboratory” for the rest of the district.

“Is it fair? No, it’s not fair.... But we’re working on that.... You’ve got to do what you can do and then push to make it equitable and have access for everybody.”