Uncertain whether they are being joined by friend or foe, members of the Los Angeles Board of Education guardedly welcomed Monica Garcia into their ranks Thursday while Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suffered a setback in support for his efforts to have a greater role in the school district.
Garcia, who was overwhelmingly elected last month to fill a vacancy on the seven-member board, was sworn in during a brief morning ceremony.
A close ally of Villaraigosa, Garcia is certain to complicate the dynamics on the board. For months, the often fractious board has united in its efforts to fend off Villaraigosa, who is trying to wrest away much of the board's authority.
In an interview this week, Garcia said that she supports proposed state legislation written by the mayor, the state's powerful teachers unions and allied lawmakers. The bill would reshuffle the district's power structure, including effectively giving the mayor veto power over the board's selection of the district superintendent.
Last week, Garcia sent a letter to some members of the state Senate Education Committee urging them to support the bill. "The existing governance structure has poorly served our local communities," she wrote.
And in her first comments as a board member, Garcia repeated her often-used statement. "We have to embrace change," she declared, in her usual booming voice. "We can absolutely do better by our children."
Villaraigosa lost what could've been critical support this week when the mayors of six cities with about 60,000 students attending the Los Angeles Unified School District came out against the proposed legislation -- Assembly Bill 1381. In a strongly worded letter to their representatives in the state Assembly and Senate, the six mayors said Villaraigosa's plan would create a "diffused and confusing oversight structure" that would leave residents of their cities, all in southeast L.A. County, with "a muted voice and ultimately no decision-making power over education."
The bill calls for the mayors from the 27 cities within the district to vote on the hiring and firing of the superintendent. But because 80% of L.A. Unified's 727,000 students live in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa would be the dominant voice on the council and could override any decisions.
In a statement, Villaraigosa said he does not view the mayors' opposition as a setback. He acknowledged that, if the bill passes, he would have greater say in the selection of the superintendent but that he "recognizes that reforming our schools will require a partnership between schools and communities and will work to build consensus around the selection of the superintendent."
School board members have fought against the mayor's challenges to their authority, angrily rejecting accusations by Villaraigosa and his supporters that they are opposed to reform. They point to a successful overhaul of teaching in elementary grades and the district's massive school construction project as evidence.
Marlene Canter, who was selected unanimously Thursday to a second year as board president, acknowledged that Garcia's presence could confound the board's stance against the mayor's efforts to have some control over the nation's second-largest school system. "We have become really close over the last six months as we've united in opposition to the bill," Canter said. "I assume this is going to create some internal tensions that we'll have to deal with."
In recent weeks, the board has met in closed session frequently to strategize about how to counter the mayor's campaign, as well as to discuss its search for a replacement for outgoing Supt. Roy Romer.
In an interview, Garcia vowed to uphold the confidentiality rules board members must adhere to under the state's Ralph M. Brown Act, but indicated that she plans to maintain close ties to the mayor.
"I'm interested in him being part of this process," she said, referring to the superintendent search. "I have to because I see him as part of the solution."
Board members, including Garcia, all sounded positive tones Thursday, saying they were hopeful the schism over control of the district would not bleed into discussion of policy decisions facing the board.
Indeed, Garcia, 38, waded right into district matters. She joined union officials and members of the grass-roots group Acorn at low-performing Jefferson High School in supporting a proposed bill that would supplement the salaries of veteran teachers who agree to help train less-experienced ones. If the bill passes, Garcia and others called on the district to apply for the funds and use them at Jefferson and the schools that feed into it.
More pressing to Garcia, perhaps, is the board's controversial decision last year to require students, starting with the freshman class of 2012, to complete a rigorous course of college-prep classes to graduate.
As an aide to Jose Huizar, who was a school board member before joining the City Council, Garcia was instrumental in the initiative and has said she will now push strongly to implement teacher training programs and increase resources to ensure students are prepared for the requirement.
Also on Thursday, parents from throughout the district gathered to unveil the Los Angeles Parents Union. Steve Barr, founder of one of the city's leading charter school operations, formed the group in an attempt to offer parents a voice in the debate over reforming the district.
"Nothing big will happen in this city until you start organizing the parents," he said.
A call for smaller schools is the main platform of the group, Barr said. Using as a model his independently run Green Dot charter schools, Barr said the group will lobby for such things as campuses with no more than 500 students and increased freedom for teachers and principals to make decisions.
Times staff writer Michelle Keller contributed to this report.