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L.A. Schools State Their Case

Times Staff Writer

After months of enduring attacks from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles Board of Education has launched a public relations offensive to highlight the district’s accomplishments and slow momentum for a mayoral takeover of the schools.

In recent weeks, board members have gone to Sacramento to ply lawmakers with information about district gains in test scores, high-performing schools located in their legislative districts, and the new campuses that have been built as part of an ongoing construction project, as well as the district’s solid finances.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said she was visited by board President Marlene Canter, who “wanted to make sure there was a reasonable and balanced discussion, that the accomplishments of the school district under the current board structure were not overlooked.”

The board has also hired political strategist Darry Sragow to help reshape its image and plans to expand its contract with a Sacramento lobbying firm in anticipation of legislation that would grant the mayor sweeping authority over the school system.

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Sragow is quick to acknowledge that the board and schools Supt. Roy Romer must strike a delicate balance between touting the gains the district has made and appearing complacent -- a charge Villaraigosa has made frequently.

“The district has to be very candid,” he said. “You cannot go out and say, ‘Everything is great, everything is fine; go away and leave us alone.’ It’s not credible, it’s not accurate.... They have to demonstrate that they are irrevocably committed to ongoing reform.”

Since announcing his intention to take over the schools, Villaraigosa has attacked the board relentlessly, calling its members “obstacles to reform” and “defenders of the status quo.” The district they run, he has said repeatedly, is “failing” and “broken.”

But when the mayor traveled to Sacramento on Monday, in part to rally support for his takeover plan, he found that the board had been there first.

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Recasting the district’s image, observers say, is crucial if the board hopes to stave off a mayoral takeover.

“If they don’t have a strong, collective response, it makes them look as bad as [Villaraigosa] portrays them,” said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

“I would have thought that they would have come out much more forcefully than they have -- not necessarily going negative against the mayor, but calling a spade a spade.... If they’re simply reacting to him, they’re in trouble.”

When Sragow came aboard at the beginning of the year, he expected the job would require only a few hours each week.

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Instead, he said, he encountered a school district in bad need of an image overhaul.

Sragow said he now spends about 80 hours a month meeting with district staff and board members, strategizing on how to counter Villaraigosa’s harsh portrayal of the nation’s second-largest district. He expects to charge the district about $20,000 a month -- a fourfold increase over the original terms of the agreement.

“The district has done an incredibly bad job of telling its story over the years,” he said. “It needs to fundamentally change its direction from an inward focus to an outward one. It is a fundamental, cultural shift.

“Instead of spending all day, every day, talking among ourselves about what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and how to fix things, we need to take time to turn our attention to [other] people and let them know what’s going on.”

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Though often divided and slowed by infighting, the board has overseen considerable improvements in recent years. Most notably, a curriculum overhaul at elementary schools has led to impressive gains on state test scores and a $19-billion school construction and repair project is on pace to ease severe overcrowding.

Despite the progress, the district continues to struggle with a high dropout rate, an uneven teaching force and dozens of poorly performing schools. Until recently, the board paid relatively little attention to badly needed reforms in middle and high schools.

Villaraigosa has seized on the dropout issue to support his call for a takeover. He often cites a controversial study that found about half of district students do not graduate on time. District officials say the correct figure is about one-quarter of students.

Under Sragow’s guidance, the board has directed Romer to expand lobbying efforts in Sacramento. Sragow and Romer said that details had not been finalized, but that they expected to beef up the district’s small Sacramento staff and increase its existing eight-month, $168,000 contract with the lobbying firm Rose and Kindel. The additional manpower, district officials say, is needed to press their case with the state’s 120 lawmakers.

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“We need to get people to think about this critically and not just accept something because of the mayor’s charisma,” said Vivian Castro, the district’s director of legislative and governmental relations. “My folks are tapped out. We’re going to need more resources.”

Sragow estimated that, besides his monthly fees, the increased lobbying effort would cost the district an additional $100,000 to $200,000.

Romer himself has entered the fray, making a rare trip to Sacramento on Wednesday to meet with Assembly members from Los Angeles.

Until recently, the superintendent largely remained on the sidelines of the growing debate, refusing to say publicly where he stood on mayoral control. But in recent weeks he has grown increasingly strident, criticizing the mayor for his attacks on the district.

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“Let’s be factual,” a visibly irritated Romer said last month after sitting through a particularly vehement speech by Villaraigosa. “The mayor has been selective in his choice of his information and he’s using it for his political agenda.”

When Villaraigosa wanted to give his State of the City address at Crenshaw High School, Romer refused, telling the mayor the event would disrupt students.

In a May 10 news release, Romer took exception to the mayor’s depiction of LAUSD as a “failing district.”

“It’s not only incorrect, it is demoralizing for the hundreds of thousands of children, teachers and parents who are making progress,” he wrote.

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And in a letter to the mayor April 27 that the district disseminated to the media, Romer urged Villaraigosa to stop “casting aspersions.” He included newspaper articles highlighting recent successes at city schools.

“It is a shift because it has escalated,” Romer said. “With this attack which we’re under now, I am doing everything I can to defend the school district.”

Sragow and other strategists said that board members must be careful not to respond to the mayor’s attacks with personal barbs of their own.

If there’s a personality slugfest, they warn, Villaraigosa wins every time.

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“They don’t have the respect. They don’t have the visibility,” said Democratic political strategist Joe Cerrell. “And they’re going up against Mr. Popularity.”

“Do not be combative, do not be adversarial,” Sragow said he advises the board. “Be sort of Zen-like. Let [the mayor] throw the bricks.”

The board for the most part has managed to keep its cool, with the exception of a biting, open letter to the mayor written by member Julie Korenstein and published in the Daily News.

“Shame on you, Mr. Mayor,” she wrote. “As you plot out your course, how will you be looked upon in the annals of Los Angeles history? Will you have been a good leader, or someone who destroyed public education? Sometimes political ambition can be very destructive.”

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The board, Sragow said, will also have to court potential allies in Los Angeles, such as the powerful teachers union, the mayors of other cities served by the district, and parent groups.

But the campaign to win the hearts at home will be tough.

A recent independent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 60% of Angelenos who were asked said they thought the quality of public schools was a “big problem.”

And mayors in some cities within district boundaries grumble that the board’s outreach efforts -- Canter has invited them to a meeting over Chinese food on Thursday -- are too little, too late.

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The potent United Teachers Los Angeles has emerged as a crucial wildcard. Though the union and the board lock horns on many issues, they are both opposed to mayoral control. And if they joined forces, Sragow and others said, they could pose a formidable obstacle to the mayor.

But UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he was cool to the idea of collaboration. The few meetings that union and district officials held on the issue “didn’t really bear any fruit,” he said.

Duffy declined to comment on whether the union -- a long-time supporter of the mayor -- would seek instead to negotiate a compromise with Villaraigosa.

Sragow concedes that the board faces an uphill battle.

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“Are the odds long? Sure the odds are long,” Sragow said. “Even if they do everything right, there is no guarantee of success.... He’s the mayor and we’re not.”


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