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Mayor Upbeat Over Schools Bid

Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa moved closer Tuesday to reaching a legislative deal in his bid to take control of the troubled Los Angeles public schools, predicting at one point that he could be ready to unveil a detailed bill as early as today.

After a frenzied series of meetings Tuesday with leaders throughout the capital, the mayor said he was trying to reach agreements with the state’s largest teachers union and its Los Angeles affiliate on “core principles” that would give him a strong measure of authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He also hinted that his takeover plan might place “special emphasis” on the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would hope that I could introduce a bill, at least propose a bill in writing, sometime in the next 24 hours,” Villaraigosa told a Capitol news conference at midday. “I’m going to wait for it. I brought my jammies and my toothbrush, and I’m here.”

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Still, as the mayor emerged from a late afternoon meeting with two union leaders, he looked tired and acknowledged that “we’re not there yet.”

California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr and United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy would not comment.

“We’re making progress,” the mayor said. “I’m heartened there’s movement, as they are heartened there’s movement on my side. We’re going to meet into the night.”

Villaraigosa’s takeover proposal calls for a “council of mayors” -- composed of leaders of the 27 cities served by the district -- to oversee the school system. A strengthened superintendent would have greater sway over budgets and instruction, while the elected Board of Education would be reduced to an advisory body that would focus on parent concerns.

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Fearing a costly and difficult fight if the takeover plan was put to a local referendum, Villaraigosa turned to Sacramento in hopes of winning the Legislature’s approval.

In a sign that he was trying to line up Republican as well as Democratic votes for an expected close fight in the Legislature, Villaraigosa spent part of the day courting GOP lawmakers who have in the past called for breaking up L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system.

At Lucca Restaurant in downtown Sacramento, Villaraigosa met over lunch with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a group of legislators, including four Republicans. One of the GOP lawmakers, Keith Richman of Northridge, put forward a plan that would give the mayor control of the district for five years, after which local voters would be asked to choose between two options: continuing mayoral control or splitting up the 727,000-student system into much smaller districts.

Dick Ackerman of Irvine, the Senate Republican leader, called Richman’s plan “intriguing,” saying it would probably please GOP legislators who have longed for an L.A. Unified breakup.

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Republican support could enable Villaraigosa to bypass majority Democrats, some of whom have been reluctant to accept his proposal, either because local voters have not been consulted or because the legislators are wary of crossing the teachers unions that have traditionally been among the Democrats’ most generous campaign supporters.

If Villaraigosa won unanimous Republican backing, he could get a bill passed in the Assembly with just 10 Democratic votes out of 48 and in the Senate with six Democratic votes out of 25.

“I think it may satisfy a couple of different Republican concerns, because some of them realize L.A. Unified is messed up and they want to try and get a resolution. And one resolution is to have somebody like the mayor take it over,” Ackerman said. “It could be the best of both worlds.”

Added Richman: “There was broad agreement that the L.A. Unified School District is a failing school district.”

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As Villaraigosa worked the halls of the Capitol, where he once served as Assembly speaker, he seized on a new study of L.A. Unified to bolster his argument for mayoral control.

The report, by the nonpartisan publication Education Week, found that only a little more than 44% of L.A. Unified students graduate from high school in four years. Of the country’s 50 largest public school districts, only five had lower graduation rates.

Villaraigosa repeatedly cited the study in media interviews and discussions with lawmakers, saying it confirmed that “the dropout rate is somewhere around 50%" in L.A. Unified.

“So we’ve got a problem. People agree on that. I can’t tell you that everybody supports my proposal, but I can tell you this: We are not leaving Sacramento until we get a resolution to this issue.”

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School district leaders rejected the study’s conclusions, calling them flawed and unfair, and accused Villaraigosa of spinning the results to suit his political agenda.

“Whatever the dropout rate is, it’s too high,” said school board President Marlene Canter, who has visited Sacramento eight times to tout the district’s academic successes. “We’re not going to rely on studies that may or may not be accurate to address the problem.”

When Canter and L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer visited Sacramento earlier in the week to meet with lawmakers and voice opposition to a mayoral takeover, they invited Villaraigosa to join them in discussing solutions to the district’s entrenched problems. The mayor ignored the offer and did not include them in his talks over the future of the school system.

Instead, he pitched his takeover vision not only to legislators and union leaders but also to the California Chamber of Commerce and leading education advocacy groups in Sacramento.

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Villaraigosa had made many of the same stops in recent weeks, but had returned Monday after Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) warned that his district takeover effort was in serious trouble.

Over the last two days, the mayor seemed to soften his tone ever so slightly, saying he was “focused on getting consensus, trying to build principles” that would give him “some responsibility over instruction, over the selection of a superintendent and the budget” -- demands he has made from the outset of his takeover campaign.

“I won’t accept a resolution that doesn’t give the mayor some responsibility for our schools, that doesn’t include the city as a collaborator and as a partner on behalf of parents, teachers and kids,” he said.

Villaraigosa received one unequivocal nod -- from Schwarzenegger, who has repeatedly voiced support for the mayor’s efforts to take control of the district. The governor said a takeover was a “great idea.”

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At a Sacramento appearance before reporters, Schwarzenegger told the mayor: “You can count on me. You can count on me, absolutely.”

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Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report from Los Angeles.


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