Assembly Speaker Warns Mayor School Takeover Plan in Trouble

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Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s attempt to take over the Los Angeles public schools is in serious jeopardy in the Legislature, according to one leading Democrat who urged the mayor Thursday to intervene in hopes of salvaging his plan.

Democrats and Republicans alike voiced doubt about Villaraigosa’s quest to overhaul the Los Angeles Unified School District, the centerpiece of his year-old administration that has prompted aggressive lobbying campaigns by district leaders and the powerful state teachers union.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee and a former teacher, said she doubted that Villaraigosa’s proposal would receive more than three votes in her committee. It needs at least six to pass.


“I do not like the vote coming from Sacramento instead of from the people who live in the district,” Goldberg said, referring to the fact that the mayor’s plan would not require a local referendum. “I like Antonio and trust him, but I don’t know who the next mayor’s going to be.

“I’m not opposed unalterably,” Goldberg added, “but I think this is way too premature.”

The opposition to Villaraigosa’s proposed takeover of the 727,000-student district in part reflects uncertainty about precisely what he is asking the Legislature to approve. Although the mayor has often discussed the need for accountability and mayoral oversight of schools, even highlighting those ideas in his recent State of the City address, he has yet to put forward a specific bill.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) telephoned Villaraigosa on Thursday to warn that fellow lawmakers were increasingly wary of his takeover plan.

Nunez advised Villaraigosa to travel to Sacramento immediately to lobby Democratic lawmakers, many of whom voiced additional concerns about diminishing the elected school board’s authority and pushing through a change in governance without more extensive debate.

Nunez said he told Villaraigosa that school district leaders and the California Teachers Assn. -- a major Democratic backer -- had out-lobbied him, successfully making a case that change is unnecessary in light of progress L.A. Unified has shown in student achievement and school construction.

“I called him and I told him he needs to get up here,” said Nunez, a personal friend of Villaraigosa and the mayor’s closest ally in the Legislature. “I had to let him know our effort is in trouble right now. A lot of members are coming up to me and saying, ‘I don’t want to support’ ” this plan.


“I want to make sure that we get this done because right now we have a window of opportunity ... but that window is closing,” Nunez added.

Villaraigosa said he was heeding Nunez’s advice. The mayor said he would spend Monday in the capital, working to convince lawmakers that there are merits in his plan to revamp L.A. Unified’s leadership. Villaraigosa wants the Legislature to establish a “council of mayors” to oversee the district and convert the elected school board into a quasi-advisory body.

“I intend to fight like hell on behalf of L.A.’s kids because the future is at risk and the status quo is unacceptable,” Villaraigosa said. “I refuse to accept that this won’t go through. Before I accept a rejection of this plan, I intend to demand that the Legislature provide an alternative.”

Lawmakers have waited restlessly for details of Villaraigosa’s proposal and asked whether the mayor, a former Assembly speaker, has enough time to win passage of a bill before lawmakers adjourn at the end of summer.

Villaraigosa enjoys the support of key Capitol power brokers, including Nunez, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has pledged to sign a takeover bill if it reaches his desk.

But progress has stalled amid opposition from teachers unions and questions about power-sharing.


Villaraigosa agreed, for example, to relinquish some authority to the mayors of 26 other cities whose schools are governed by L.A. Unified after those leaders balked at an initial plan that would have placed virtually all power in his hands.

But the delay has made some Democrats and Republicans alike uneasy and spawned increasing skepticism about the virtues of a school takeover.

“I hear a significant amount of reticence,” said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who has been asked by the school district to help select a replacement for retiring Supt. Roy Romer. “Quite a lot of it is related to the fact that there is no bill or proposal to make a decision about. People typically lobby for bills.”

Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he had formed no opinion about Villaraigosa’s plan other than the desire to see the details undergo rigorous legislative scrutiny.

“I need more information,” said Torlakson, who has been lobbied by Villaraigosa and school board President Marlene Canter. “It really deserves a lot of dialogue, a lot of comprehensive thinking.

“I’ve been pleased to see major progress being made in the L.A. district, yet the problems are so enormous ... we should look at all alternatives for turning things around,” he added.


Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she was prepared to present a bill “within days” to embody Villaraigosa’s vision. “I’m just waiting on the mayor at this point,” she said.

Villaraigosa has visited Sacramento several times in recent months to plead his case for a takeover. Canter and other district leaders have been lobbying as well.

Rather than criticize the mayor’s plan, Canter said Thursday that she has sought to educate legislators about the progress the district has made in raising elementary school test scores and building new campuses.

“I’ve always said I do not believe that governance is a lever for change,” said Canter, who also plans to visit Sacramento on Monday. Improving achievement, she said, depends on “a quality teacher in every school, a quality principal in every school.”

CTA President Barbara Kerr said she thinks the mayor’s “heart is in the right place.”

“He wants to help the schools. But this isn’t the way to do it,” said Kerr, whose union recently lobbied legislators against Villaraigosa’s plan.

As Villaraigosa fights for his takeover effort in the Legislature, he also is attempting to assemble a broad base of support from business leaders, parent activists and even labor organizers outside of education.


Villaraigosa has pitched his takeover plan to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the California Chamber of Commerce and various parent groups.

On Monday evening, he is scheduled to court some of Los Angeles’ most prominent businesspeople during an event at Creative Artists Agency, an event billed as a dialogue with the mayor but one that offers an important opportunity for him to build momentum.

Villaraigosa has approached several unions with little direct connection to schools, including the State Building and Construction Trades Council. None have yet publicly indicated their support for a district takeover.

Villaraigosa, himself a former labor official, remains undaunted.

“There’s no question that I need a broad consensus of business, labor, Democrats and Republicans,” the mayor said in an interview earlier this week. “I cannot win without a bipartisan coalition.”

Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report. Helfand reported from Los Angeles, Vogel from Sacramento.