Mayor Seeks Truce With Teachers
Seeking to jump-start his stalled bid for control of the Los Angeles public schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sought a compromise Monday with an old ally that has become his chief nemesis, the state’s largest teachers union.
But even as leaders of the powerful California Teachers Assn. signaled a willingness to talk, Villaraigosa faced questions and doubts from fellow Democrats in the Legislature about the benefit of his taking over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
These legislators asked whether mayoral control would address fundamental problems faced by the 727,000-student school district, including a lack of money for new teachers and a need for smaller classes.
Villaraigosa, who traveled to Sacramento for two days of lobbying after Democratic allies warned that his plan was in trouble, predicted that a detailed takeover bill would be ready for state legislators to review as early as next week.
“I can tell you that I will not be deterred,” Villaraigosa told a Capitol news conference, where he was joined by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). “I’m not a Johnny-come-lately to this process. I know this Legislature. I know what we have to do to get the reform that we need.”
Villaraigosa is seeking state legislation to avoid local referendums, which would be costly and probably difficult to win.
The mayor met with top teachers union leaders briefly Monday after Nunez and Perata urged both sides to talk. The meeting was followed by discussions between Villaraigosa’s staff and union officials about a compromise that would allow Villaraigosa to salvage the centerpiece of his year-old administration.
Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles teachers union official, has staked significant political capital on his school district takeover. The initiative has triggered forceful opposition not only from the state teachers union but from United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the state union, and from the school district, which sent its own high-level lobbying contingent to Sacramento on Monday.
After meeting with Villaraigosa, however, state union officials struck a responsive tone.
The state union “is always willing to talk,” said Joe Nunez, the union’s associate executive director of governmental relations. “We want to work with the mayor. Enough of the rhetoric. Let’s sit down.
“He’s been our friend for a long time,” added Nunez, who is not related to the Assembly speaker. “We’ve been explicit about our opposition to mayoral control. But we share a lot of core values.”
Villaraigosa responded in like manner.
“I’ve always been a good listener,” he said. “I know that the key to leadership is not just communicating. But I believe everybody’s got to listen.”
Villaraigosa has good reason to reach an agreement: The state teachers union has been one of his largest campaign donors, contributing nearly $640,000 to his 2005 mayoral campaign.
Indeed, the state union’s ability to raise money and organize members for Democratic allies makes it one of the most formidable forces in California politics. Some legislators refer to the union’s opposition as “the kiss of death.”
Records show the 335,000-member union spent more than $70 million on lobbying and campaign donations between 2000 and 2004. It spent an additional $55 million to defeat ballot measures promoted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a special election last year.
But several Democratic legislators said that lingering questions about Villaraigosa’s plans -- not pressure from the state union -- have caused them to pause as they await takeover legislation.
Several Los Angeles-area legislators said they hadn’t yet spoken to Villaraigosa but said they were eager for details of how the mayor would provide more teachers and smaller classroom sizes for Los Angeles schools.
“How is this going to benefit kids? That’s the bottom line,” said Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), a former middle school teacher. “How is this going to make things better? What are his programs? I’ve got a list of 30 things that I think will improve schools. I haven’t heard any specifics addressed in the media, anywhere, let alone a bill.”
Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said she too wondered how Villaraigosa’s plan would address the many underlying causes of academic failure.
“It seems like the proposal has to do with just governance versus the kinds of deeper reforms they need in the classroom,” Chu said. “We haven’t seen a bill. And it seems like form rather than substance at this point.”
Some legislators said that L.A. Unified officials had convinced them that the long-troubled district is making significant progress in raising student achievement and building schools. That, legislators said, was casting doubt on the need for a change in leadership.
“I think for some members who are hesitant to weigh into a fray against UTLA and CTA, the district is giving them some cover not to get involved,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale). “The mayor’s challenge is to put forward his critique of what’s happening with the district and his vision for how he’s going to improve the schools.”
School board President Marlene Canter made her eighth visit to Sacramento on Monday; she was joined by Supt. Roy Romer and school board member Mike Lansing.
After meeting with legislators, Romer lashed out at Villaraigosa for trying to “save face” at the expense of the district.
“We don’t need this kind of arbitrary last-minute, behind-the-closed doors legislation that we’re seeing develop here today,” Romer said. “I don’t want to embarrass the mayor. But I’m more concerned about children of Los Angeles than I am the mayor’s reputation.
“There is a better way to work together,” Romer added. “Antonio can ... sit down with us any day of the week. We want him at the table. We’re glad to work with him.”