Villaraigosa appeals ruling on schools

Times Staff Writer

A day after a judge struck down a law giving Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial control over local schools, his legal team filed an appeal and his senior staff said plans to run dozens of schools are moving at full speed.

Legal opinion is divided on the L.A. mayor’s chances in court -- and some voices are urging him to consider other options for improving schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But Villaraigosa’s strategy is to forge ahead, including with his plan to defeat school board incumbents running for reelection.

“Right now, the mayor is confident we’re going to prevail on appeal and so am I,” said Tom Saenz, Villaraigosa’s legal advisor and a primary architect of the law that was tossed out.

Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs sided entirely with attorneys for the school district in finding the new law unconstitutional on numerous grounds.


Specifically, she said the law improperly transfers control of campuses to an entity outside the school system. She also concluded that the law violates the Los Angeles City Charter by taking too much authority from the school board and by conferring conflicting management roles on Villaraigosa.

Saenz called Thursday’s sweeping decision a “clear target” for appeal. He said the judge erred in failing to recognize the Legislature’s broad powers under the state Constitution to grant authority over schools to Villaraigosa.

The appeal would be heard by a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal. But the mayor’s team may ask the state Supreme Court to take the case immediately, because the high court will be the ultimate destination for the groundbreaking case, Saenz said.

An attorney for the school district said his side would consider a request for an expedited appeal.


At the earliest, a ruling might come in February, but a typical case could last 18 months or more, attorneys said. A longer timetable could effectively run out the clock on Villaraigosa’s education initiative.

The mayor also has formed a committee to raise funds for the March school board race. His goal has long been to topple incumbents who have resisted his intervention; it’s another way to assert control. Former Mayor Richard Riordan employed that approach with mixed success.

Villaraigosa’s election vehicle will be the Partnership for Better Schools. The mayor’s existing Committee on Excellence and Accountability, which funded the campaign for the overturned law, cannot be used legally to finance the school board race, the mayor’s office said. That committee instead will pay litigation costs.

That legal effort is likely to succeed, said Bernard James, an education law professor at Pepperdine University. He called Janavs’ ruling out of step with a long history of judges deferring to state legislatures on educational policy.

“In matters of state constitutional law, doubts about authority are generally resolved in favor of the legislature,” James said.

The school system had argued that such reasoning could allow the legislation to give control of schools to any entity, even Jiffy Lube. James called that a red herring.

But others foresee a different outcome. In other cities where mayors have obtained authority over schools, they didn’t face the challenge of a forbidding state Constitution.

The Legislature cannot override the Constitution, said Martha West, a UC Davis professor of law. Villaraigosa and his allies should have made their appeal to the voters in the form of a ballot measure, she said.


Saenz rejected this reasoning, noting that seeking voter approval would mean asking L.A. voters to change the City Charter and asking state voters to change the Constitution. “That’s a pretty high hurdle,” he said.

West, a former member of the Davis Joint Unified School District Board of Education, defended the logic behind the judge’s constitutional interpretation.

“Everybody wants to be a player in education even if they have no expertise in those issues,” she said. “I don’t see how a city government can do a better job running schools than school administrators, boards of education and superintendents. There are statewide issues involving funding, class size and early childhood education, but the problems won’t be solved by the Los Angeles mayor.”

Nothing would prevent Villaraigosa from taking another try at legislation. “You have a governor and mayor who want the same thing,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor who has studied mayoral intervention in schools across the country.

“When you have that, you have a chance of working this thing back up through the state using the state’s control of education.”

Villaraigosa’s success in school board elections may ultimately be a cleaner vehicle than the new law for influencing school reforms. Failing that, mayors have created helpful negotiated partnerships with school districts, Kirst said.

“You can do a lot without getting into seizing the operation and control of schools,” Kirst said, “although I’m not sure that would satisfy this mayor.”

In fact, there has been periodic talk about negotiating a settlement that gives Villaraigosa genuine authority to lead reform efforts at a group of schools -- which is perhaps the heart of the overturned law. An agreement could retain the school district in an oversight role without tying the mayor’s hands.


School district general counsel Kevin Reed said Friday that such an approach could work.

“I cannot tell you today that I have four votes on the school board for it,” Reed said. “I can tell you with confidence that Supt. [David] Brewer and [School Board President] Marlene Canter would set the meeting tomorrow if the mayor wants to have that conversation.”

The mayor’s office also expressed some interest. So did the president of the teachers union. “Before the mayor took up the idea, we had proposed something like his demonstration project in a slightly scaled-down form,” said A.J. Duffy of United Teachers Los Angeles. He said he intended to speak to all parties about joint reform efforts starting next week.

A real detente, one that focused efforts on improving schools, would mean putting aside the vitriol of recent months.

Riordan, though supporting the appeal, said it is time to move ahead. “Everything is negotiable,” Riordan said. “The kids are waiting. Let’s negotiate change and get things going.” Times staff writers Carla Rivera and Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.