Mayor Maps Plans to Run L.A. Unified

Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa accelerated his drive Thursday to take over the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District, announcing for the first time that he wants full control in two years and will unveil a detailed reform plan in three months.

In recent weeks, Villaraigosa has assembled a team of advisors who are beginning to draft a plan to take on the elected school board and the city's powerful teachers union to win voter approval for a takeover.

This week, Villaraigosa and key aides launched a blitz of speeches to begin to lay the foundation for the coming campaign.

At a conference of mayors in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday, Villaraigosa argued that the district is failing its 727,000 students. He also consulted with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who have oversight of their school boards.

"I am more convinced than ever after talking with Mayor Daley that this is the right course for Los Angeles, as it was for Chicago, New York and Boston," Villaraigosa said Thursday in an interview. "A great city has to have as its anchor a great public school system."

While Villaraigosa took advantage of the national exposure to argue for mayoral control, two key advisors began making the case in Los Angeles -- on Tuesday before the education committee of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and on Thursday before influential local educators.

Before he left for Washington, Villaraigosa met Monday with his panel of education advisors and expressed confidence that he will triumph, saying that he will wield his popularity against the little-known members of the school board to win voters' support. "I'm the guy that can get it done," Villaraigosa said, according to people who attended the closed session.

Villaraigosa, advisors and other sources say, has come to believe that virtually every aspect of his agenda -- from economic development to public safety -- will fail unless he gains control of L.A. Unified.

In speeches and media interviews while he attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Villaraigosa maintained that he must control the schools because their success is critical to the city's success. The city economy counts on the schools' producing skilled, educated workers, he said, and failure in schools creates poverty and other social ills.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Villaraigosa explained that the mayor "has a great opportunity to really push that bureaucracy, cut those layers of bureaucracy, invest more moneys in the classroom, create a culture of innovation, support charter schools as opportunities for incubators for innovative ideas and do something to improve achievement and lower the dropout rate."

But gaining control of the schools will, at best, be difficult.

Villaraigosa wants to be able to appoint members to the school board, which his advisors have determined would require a change in state law and a voter-approved change in the City Charter.

Complicating matters, voters in the 26 other cities that send some of their children to L.A. Unified would have to be satisfied that handing control to the mayor of Los Angeles would improve student performance.

There will be opposition from the teachers union -- a potent political force -- and perhaps even from members of the City Council.

On Thursday, Councilman Tony Cardenas proposed an alternative to mayoral control that would professionalize the school board.

Under the plan, the board would be expanded from seven to 13 members elected from smaller districts, subject to term limits and paid full-time salaries.

Villaraigosa, who had an hourlong breakfast meeting with Daley, said the mayor urged him to take the time to develop support for the change.

"He said I shouldn't think this is going to happen overnight because it took him six years, but that I cannot be in any way deterred for one second," Villaraigosa said. "He feels strongly about that because he said there has been marked improvement in Chicago schools."

Villaraigosa now has a team in place to help him take over the schools:

* Thomas Saenz, his chief counsel, is studying the mechanics of a takeover and on Thursday announced the mayor's new timetable for the plan. Saenz says it would require complicated legal changes, including a ballot measure to change the charter. The next citywide elections, which Villaraigosa may be eyeing, are scheduled for March 2007 with a runoff, if necessary, in May.

* Marcus Castain, an associate director for education, is drawing up Villaraigosa's plan on how he would fix the schools after taking control.

A graduate of the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, Castain last worked as an associate director for the Broad Foundation, where he established a program that found jobs for MBAs in troubled school districts.

* Carolyn Webb de Macias, a senior advisor, is leading efforts to identify short-term programs that the mayor can implement, such as expanded mentoring and ensuring that students are safe on their way to school.

Such efforts, if successful, could help persuade voters that the mayor should be put in charge of the schools.

Castain acknowledged in an interview this week that the mayor's rhetoric would sound empty unless he told the public how he would improve the classroom environment.

"My job is take all that is known about education reform and figure out how we can do that here in Los Angeles," he said.

Castain, who began working for the mayor this month, would not discuss particulars, but acknowledged that he believes L.A. Unified is top-heavy and that some decentralization is needed. "I do have a bias to making decisions closer to the students and the families," he said.

Chicago's Daley, who won legislative approval in 1995 to appoint school board members, said in an interview that he has launched a successful program to improve that city's school system.

But he also warned that Villaraigosa would face enormous political obstacles trying to gain power over the schools.

"It's a challenge," Daley said.

He said both political parties in the Illinois General Assembly had doubts. "The Democrats voted against it because of the unions," he said. "The Republicans gave it to me because they thought they had given me a hot political potato. They thought I was going to fumble and fall down."

Daley also advised Villaraigosa not to pick a fight with the school district. "I didn't blame anyone. I didn't blame the teachers. I said I'm here to basically make some changes," he said.

Villaraigosa, who once worked for the local teachers union, has attacked the school board as an impediment to change, but not teachers.

Twice this week, Villaraigosa dispatched his education advisors to make his case in Los Angeles, a sort of trial run for the campaign.

On Tuesday, Castain debated school board President Marlene Canter before the Chamber of Commerce's education panel.

On Thursday, Saenz was a panelist at a State of the Schools forum in downtown Los Angeles sponsored by the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs. Canter was also on the panel.

Both advisors recited statistics about student achievement, or, rather, a lack of student achievement in the city's schools.

Canter cited climbing test scores in the district and argued that the district was headed in the right direction.

On both days, Canter was clearly on the defensive.

But some in the audience were not persuaded by Saenz.

Mayoral control "is something we're open to if it's done right," said Lisa Milton, the executive director of LA Voice, a faith-based nonprofit group that works on education reform.

"But I think there's a real danger to say that a mayoral takeover will solve all the problems," Milton said.

In the coming weeks, though, a war of words will probably continue to flare up between Villaraigosa and the school board.

"The mayor has the bully pulpit and there's a lot to be said to use that to effect change," Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said.

At a recent meeting of the Studio City Residents Assn., Greuel recalled that she asked the crowd of about 100 how many could name their representative on the school board.

"I think it was only one or two," Greuel said.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction Schools takeover -- An article on Friday's front page about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to gain control of the schools said Councilman Tony Cardenas had proposed an alternative plan that would professionalize the school board and expand it to 13 elected members. In fact, the plan was proposed by Jose Cornejo, Cardenas' chief of staff, whom Cardenas appointed to a joint council-school board education reform panel.
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