The law giving Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial powers over Los Angeles public schools got its first airing in court Friday, when a judge asked pointed questions about the centerpiece of the intervention efforts: the mayor's authority to assert direct control over more than three dozen schools.
The Legislature passed the Villaraigosa-backed law this fall, but the school district and other parties sued last month to permanently block the measure from taking effect Jan. 1, arguing, among other things, that it violates both the state Constitution and the Los Angeles City Charter.
Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs did not issue a ruling Friday after listening to three hours of testimony from lawyers representing Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles Unified School District and others. Janavs said she hoped to make her decision before the end of next week. The losing side is expected to appeal.
At issue is Assembly Bill 1381, which would shift some powers of the school board to the district superintendent and others to the mayor and a new Council of Mayors that Villaraigosa would dominate.
Perhaps the most crucial provision for Villaraigosa, however, allows him to choose and take control of three high schools and all the elementary and middle schools that feed into them. The schools could serve as many as 80,000 students, equivalent to the state's fourth-largest school district.
Villaraigosa's attorneys argued that the Legislature had broad powers under the California Constitution to designate authority over school systems.
But Janavs had questions about that. What, she asked, would stop the Legislature from naming anyone to run schools?
"Maybe we should get the police chief into a partnership and a council," she said. "Or maybe the district attorney. Where should the line be drawn?"
"You don't have to reach that far," responded Bradley S. Phillips, a private attorney who acted as lead trial counsel for the mayor's team.
"I think I do," said Janavs, returning repeatedly to the implication that the Legislature's discretion had no apparent limits.
Attorneys for the school system picked up on the judge's interest, arguing that the mayor's team was, in essence, arguing that a "dog catcher" could be designated to run schools, or that the Legislature could take it upon itself to assign the mayor to run the county's jails or the state of Utah.
Transferring so much power to the mayor and the Council of Mayors would eviscerate the school board's authority, violating the intent of the state Constitution and the Los Angeles city charter, said Fredric Woocher, a private attorney representing the district, parent organizations and some individual parents.
"At what point has the Legislature taken so much authority from the school board that it's no longer effectively governing?" he asked.
The judge's questions suggested that the constitutional objection becomes stronger as the school board becomes weaker. That put Villaraigosa's team in an awkward position. His lawyers repeatedly insisted that Villaraigosa's new authority was strictly limited, that the school board remained intact and relatively potent and that prevailing laws and oversight remained in force.
But their arguments ran counter to the original thrust of Villaraigosa's school reform effort: He had vowed to wrest as much authority as possible from the school board, chiefly by taking over the three groups of schools.
Last weekend, Villaraigosa announced the hiring of four educators who would help run his schools, and on Wednesday, he unveiled a $1-million private donation; another $1 million already was in hand.
He's supposed to select his first group of schools by Feb. 1 and the second by March 1. That could become a challenging time frame for the mayor as the court case plays out.
The Council of Mayors, by contrast, is less crucial to the mayor's immediate plans because its primary duty is to ratify the hiring of a superintendent. On this front, the school board circumvented Villaraigosa by signing retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer to a four-year contract last month, before the new law could take effect.
Brewer could yet be the unlikely beneficiary of Villaraigosa's efforts. The law transfers some of the school board's powers to him, and this transfer is subject to fewer constitutional challenges.
The judge raised the possibility that she would throw out some parts of the new law, but she didn't specify which. She queried the parties about whether the rest could function on their own.
The mayor's team argued that they could. An attorney for the school district said the answer depended on what survived.
The notion that part -- but not all -- of the new law could persist might displease some of the mayor's allies who worry that a piecemeal bill could undermine school reform efforts.
Last fall, former Mayor Richard Riordan, philanthropist Eli Broad, former Gov. Pete Wilson and some legislators specifically asked the law's backers to remove a "severability clause," and the mayor's team complied. This action suggested that if part of the bill failed, it would all be nullified. At least that's how proponents of the change understood it.
The mayor's attorneys said in court papers that severability is spelled out in the education code.
After their appearance in court, school district attorneys seemed distinctly hopeful.
"The judge has obviously taken the time to deal with these issues, read the briefs thoroughly and showed a command of the case law," said Kevin Reed, district general counsel. "I think that we're right, and I'm cautiously optimistic."
Villaraigosa predicted the law would be upheld and would "allow us all to move past the lawsuit and begin implementing the reforms."
The mayor's top legal advisor acknowledged that his side had to field numerous pointed questions but insisted that the judge's inquiries gave no reliable indication of a ruling against the law.
"I wouldn't take so much from who gets asked more questions," said Thomas Saenz, the mayor's legal counsel, who attended the hearing but did not argue the case.
"Sometimes that's just clarifying her own thinking."
Whatever survives of the new law would be a plus, he said.
"Every piece of the package," Saenz said, "was important."