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Deal Puts Mayor on Verge of Major School Control

Times Staff Writers

After tough negotiations with two forceful teachers unions, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa struck an agreement Wednesday that would give him significant sway over Los Angeles’ troubled public schools but fall short of the total takeover he had sought.

Under a compromise expected to be drafted by Friday and considered by the Legislature next week, Villaraigosa would effectively gain veto power over the selection of the superintendent, and that official would assume most budget and contracting authority now handled by the elected Board of Education, the mayor’s aides said.

Teachers and principals, meanwhile, would have new authority to shape classroom instruction, loosening the district’s reins on how best to teach -- a change the union has vociferously sought for years.

The current seven-member Los Angeles Unified School District board, which the mayor has accused of micro-management, would lose virtually all of its authority to oversee billions of dollars in contracts and make line-by-line changes in the district’s $7.4-billion operating budget.

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District officials attacked the agreement as a late-night, back-room deal that would harm the district, and they discussed the possibility of litigation.

Through one provision, Villaraigosa would oversee three low-performing Los Angeles high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed them. All authority the superintendent and board now wield over those schools would be transferred to the mayor, according to one of the mayor’s aides.

Such changes, Villaraigosa and others argue, are long overdue in a district plagued by lower-than-average achievement levels and high dropout rates. A report this week by a nonpartisan education group estimated that less than half of L.A. Unified students graduate on time, an assertion that district leaders disputed.

“This could be a historic chance if we do the right thing,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “It’s a framework for hard work that needs to happen to make real, lasting change.”

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At Villaraigosa’s request, the proposed legislation includes a six-year “sunset” provision and assessment -- meaning the Legislature would have the ability to make other changes if student performance did not improve.

“I didn’t run to be king of Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said. “I want to be mayor and a consensus builder. And we’re going to use these broad powers to innovate, to create the kind of environment that really can be an incubator for great ideas and success.”

He said repeatedly that the proposed legislation is not about mayoral control but instead about public accountability. But the compromise would effectively give Villaraigosa final say over selection of the next superintendent.

The legislation would allow the school board to pick a superintendent -- the board is currently seeking a replacement for retiring Supt. Roy Romer -- but a council of mayors from the cities that the district serves would have veto power over the choice. And because 80% of L.A. Unified’s 727,000 students live in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa would be the dominant voice on the council.

District officials quickly condemned the mayor’s deal with the unions as a power grab that would undermine an urban system that has recently shown marked progress in raising student achievement levels and building new schools to ease overcrowding.

The district’s top lawyer, Kevin Reed, said he and other school officials were already talking about possible lawsuits.

Reed questioned whether a superintendent hired by the council of mayors would have a conflict of interest when making decisions on such issues as where to locate new schools.

“Will it be on a block where the city might want to put big-box retail for the tax revenue?” Reed asked.

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He also called it troubling that union officials apparently sought from Villaraigosa the same thing they had been seeking in recent contact negotiations: greater control by teachers over instructional methods.

“It doesn’t exactly smack of good faith when they hit the bargaining table,” Reed said.

At a midday news conference hastily arranged on a sweltering elementary school playground, board members erupted with anger and frustration, saying they had been kept in the dark about Wednesday’s compromise. They rebuked the mayor and teachers union officials for cutting a deal that ignored the board, parent groups and several other unions that represent district employees.

“I wouldn’t have expected anything else from our mayor, who thinks he is the education guru,” said Julie Korenstein, who has served on the board 19 years and has close ties to UTLA. “The mayor who sends his children to private schools because he thinks private schools are better than public schools. A mayor who has never taught a day in his life. A mayor who ... has made a decision that somehow with his hand he will bless the children of L.A. Unified and make all the changes.... Somehow he has this grandiose plan that we have never seen.”

Romer raised concerns about any proposal under which the new superintendent would have to answer to multiple bosses.

“Every day that he goes to work, he’s going to think, ‘Who is the person or group to whom I report?’ Who’s going to be the person in control? Those are very serious questions.... We ought not do this by instantaneous press conference in Sacramento,” Romer said.

Mike Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who has written extensively about mayoral control of schools across the country, echoed Romer’s concerns.

He said the new superintendent could easily get caught between the board and the mayor, triggering power struggles.

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“If different groups have different power, it’s not clear who’s in charge,” Kirst said. “It could set up a lot of conflict.”

Villaraigosa acknowledged that the broad outline unveiled at the Capitol after a long night of negotiating was vague. He said he made many concessions to the teachers unions. But he voiced determination to be what he says Los Angeles schools desperately need: a leader around whom parents, students, teachers and other interest groups can coalesce to cut a high dropout rate and improve chronically low student achievement.

“Sometimes I get a knot in my throat when I go to schools, some of the low-performing schools in the city,” said Villaraigosa, who has made gaining control of the district the top priority of his year-old administration. “Because in the eyes of these kids, I see myself. I see a young kid that dropped out of high school, a kid that people gave up on. I believe that we can’t give up on these kids. I believe we have to have higher expectations.”

Villaraigosa failed to gain the sort of near-absolute control over the city’s school district that the mayors of New York and Chicago hold over theirs. He toured New York schools earlier this year and patterned much of his takeover proposal on the reforms promoted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Parent Scott Folsom, a PTSA leader in L.A. Unified, said at a Los Angeles news conference that he and other district parents had also visited New York to study mayoral control and came away dismayed by what they had seen, particularly how parents were treated.

“Mayoral control has not worked well in the cities in which it has been tried,” he said, adding that New York City parents “have been kicked to the curb.”

But a union leader said the agreement with Villaraigosa would bring positive change and could lead to more freedom for teachers, not only in Los Angeles but also across the country.

“I think it’s a very big deal for us,” said Joshua Pechthalt, an American Federation of Teachers vice president assigned to UTLA. “The trend in public education over the last 10 years or so has been more ‘top down’ mandates.... The overall thrust has been to tie teachers’ hands and impose a one-size-fits-all approach to education.”

By striking a deal with the California Teachers Assn., a major financial backer of Democratic campaigns throughout the state, Villaraigosa probably cleared a major hurdle to getting the school legislation through the Democratic-dominated Legislature. The leaders of the Senate and Assembly have vowed their support, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday called the deal “exactly what needs to be done,” saying he looks forward to signing the measure into law.

The bill’s coauthors will be two Los Angeles Democrats, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Sen. Gloria Romero.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a former teacher and chairwoman of the lower house’s Education Committee, opposed Villaraigosa’s original plan. She had called it “undemocratic,” warning that it would do nothing to bring the additional money the district needs to address overcrowding. But in a surprising turnabout, she praised the compromise struck Wednesday.

“There are things in here that I think very much could get through this Legislature, including my committee with my support,” she said.

“Right now I’m very optimistic that they’re going to write something that I can support,” Goldberg said. “But I do need to see it. How do you share power among a school board, a superintendent and a mayor?”

Assemblyman Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) said, “I can’t see a reason not to support it.”

“I’ll say to parents in my upper-middle-class district: We have to care about what happens to every kid in this state,” said Wyland, vice chairman of the Education Committee. “If there’s a student who drops out at the end of 10th grade, we’ve invested perhaps $100,000 in that student. And if that student doesn’t have the competencies to get a decent job and contribute to the state and become a good citizen, we not only pay for it, we lose.”

Villaraigosa had staked his political reputation on gaining substantial reforms in the school district. Although he fell short of winning full authority, the deal he brokered scored him big political points with legislators and with organized labor, which is his most ardent backer and source of campaign support.

“I would say this is a good solution for L.A.,” said CTA President Barbara Kerr. “It’s a good solution for the mayor and the kids.”

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Times staff writers Steve Hymon, Michelle Keller, Joe Mathews and Jeffrey L. Rabin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In mayor’s words

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Antonio Villaraigosa declared his support for gaining control of the Los Angeles Unified School District in April 2005, while he was campaigning against the incumbent mayor, James K. Hahn. Here is a sampling of Villaraigosa’s remarks on the matter:

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April 17, 2005: Villaraigosa said the mayor should have “ultimate control and oversight” over the district, adding that “what we have now is not working. What we have now just isn’t acceptable in terms of the kinds of achievement we’re looking for.”

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June 17, 2005: “I am not looking for more power. I just got elected to a great job and have plenty of that. I’m looking for accountability.”

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July 15, 2005: “We have to build trust and confidence around this idea of mayoral control. I’m going to work first to build that trust and confidence.”

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November 2005: “I am not looking to alienate anyone, but I am going to make the case for public accountability.”

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April 12, 2006: “It’s going to be an absolute war here. They’re going to go nuts when [we] do it. I think we’ve got a shot at it. I’m going to use my capital.”

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Tuesday: “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.”

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Source: Times research

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Hopes and reality

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Here is how Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fared in Sacramento with his efforts to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District:

What Villaraigosa wanted

Make the mayor responsible for schools.

What Villaraigosa got

He would share power with the superintendent, the school board and a council of mayors.

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What Villaraigosa wanted

Create a council of mayors that includes the other cities in the district and approves the district budget and hires the superintendent.

What Villaraigosa got

The council of mayors would review the budget and could veto the board’s selection for superintendent.

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What Villaraigosa wanted

Strip the elected school board of most of its powers and make it an advisory body that focuses on parent concerns.

What Villaraigosa got

The superintendent would get broader operational and contracting control, but the board would still set policy. Teachers would get more say in curriculum.

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What Villaraigosa wanted

Strengthen the charter schools movement.

What Villaraigosa got

He would assume sole control of some of the district’s worst schools.

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Sources: Mayor’s office, legislative leaders involved in the negotiations

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VOICES

‘We will look back one day and say this was a significant and historic piece of legislation that altered the academic abilities and achievement of the children for Los Angeles.’

Sen. Gloria Romero

(D-Los Angeles)

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‘This deal came together because the mayor and the [teachers] union decided to write an agreement. And I think there are more participants in L.A. than the mayor and the union that need to speak on this matter before it’s done.’

Roy Romer

L.A. Unified superintendent

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Villaraigosa’s heart

‘is with those kids. There’s politics involved in anything we do, but the main thing here is he wants to make a difference for these kids.’

Barbara Kerr

president of the

California Teachers Assn.

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‘Mr. Mayor ... what are your grandiose plans for curing all the ills you profess? ... Are you going to experiment with 727,000 lives so you can be the next governor of California?’

Julie Korenstein

longtime member of

the L.A. Unified board

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‘Mayor Villaraigosa stepped up with bold leadership to reform the system and proposes a plan that has the mayor becoming accountable to the LAUSD students and their parents. As leaders, we must do all we can to see that our children can achieve their dreams.’

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

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‘We’re asking you, Mr. Mayor, come talk to us. Let’s not go behind closed doors and make deals.’

Cheryl Razor

parent of a student

in L.A. Unified


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