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Villaraigosa, Brewer to finally meet

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the incoming schools superintendent will meet this morning for the first time amid a still simmering conflict over control of the city schools, but the advertised theme of the day will be partnership.

“We will not have tension,” said David L. Brewer, the retired vice admiral who takes charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District before year’s end. “There will be partnering, partnering and partnering.”

A similar message came from Villaraigosa. But an effective detente between the school system and the mayor will be difficult to forge.

For one, Brewer was chosen against the mayor’s will, which is one reason Villaraigosa may be intent on defeating incumbents in the March school board elections. And some crucial issues remain seemingly beyond diplomacy, including state legislation, signed into law last month, that was intended to give Villaraigosa substantial authority over the district.

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The mayor’s team is moving quickly to take advantage of the law, even as the school district challenges it in court. And until the legal questions are settled, the mayor and the school board seem determined to play by different rule books.

Though school board members face the most immediate threat to their political survival, there also are risks for Villaraigosa if he mishandles his early encounters with Brewer.

Brewer, for one, is sticking to his upbeat script.

“We’re all on the same page here,” Brewer said Monday at 96th Street Elementary School. “Now, [Villaraigosa] wants the same things that I want. One of the ways that you overcome conflict is that you find common ground and you find common understanding. He will find that he and I will find common ground.”

Villaraigosa was unable to use political muscle, his bully pulpit or even the law (which takes effect Jan. 1) to arm-twist a central role in picking the superintendent. But this week, the mayor took a conciliatory tack.

“I want a partnership with the school district, the school board and Adm. Brewer,” he told a City Hall news conference Monday. “I’ve always said this is not about me. This is about the kids. I’m committed to these kids. I don’t feel fooled in any way. I don’t feel like that in any way this disappointment is going to deter our efforts to reform the school district. I’m absolutely committed to that.”

Despite talk of partnership, Villaraigosa may be shifting toward trying to replace the current school board. The mayor has one staunch ally, the recently elected Monica Garcia, on the seven-member board. Among the four seats up this spring, one incumbent is retiring and three are expected to run again.

A subtle opening shot was fired Monday over the Latino-majority district now represented by three-term incumbent David Tokofsky. Garcia missed a Monday school board meeting to co-host a news conference that called attention to the proportional under-representation of Latinos on school boards.

Tokofsky, who is white and speaks Spanish, represents a district that was specifically carved out to elect a Latino, but he was elected and then reelected twice.

Garcia said she plans to endorse candidates in the school board races, but “not necessarily along ethnic lines.”

The mayor’s office is widely expected to endorse a Latino to unseat Tokofsky, a voluble critic of the Villaraigosa-backed schools legislation.

So, how well can Tokofsky and other board members partner with the mayor amid this looming political challenge?

“It’s another distraction for half a year,” Tokofsky said, “rather than doing what I think our new superintendent is about, which is getting everybody rowing in the same direction, engaged in our schools and achieving results in our classrooms.”

The entrance of Brewer, a Los Angeles newcomer, into the frosty relationship could make a difference.

“There is a real opportunity with this new leadership coming in,” Garcia said.

And there is plenty to collaborate on without delay, officials said, including the issue of safety around schools as well as the use of campuses by other agencies and groups. And the school system and city could work together to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento to change rules that limit the district’s eligibility for school construction funds.

Yet it may be difficult to find common ground on pressing issues, including the choice of schools that the mayor would oversee directly under the new law. Under its terms, the mayor would manage three low-performing high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them.

The mayor’s office is interviewing and hiring staff and has talked of choosing those “clusters” of schools by mid-November. Yet the district’s lawsuit challenges the formation of the clusters, and a judge is not scheduled to hear the case until Dec. 15.

School board President Marlene Canter offered possible middle ground in an interview last week, suggesting that the mayor could adopt a group of schools without taking formal control.

Brewer, when asked about the clusters, replied that there would be plenty of schools to go around for both himself and the mayor.

“We’ve got 800-plus schools out here,” he said. “I guarantee I’ll be able to find my bad [ones]. We’ll work that. So, you can say, I will find my bad.”

For his part, Villaraigosa could choose to continue railing against the selection process that led to Brewer’s appointment, but it soon would begin to sound like he was criticizing Brewer -- and most people with an interest in the school system ultimately care more about Brewer’s performance than whether the mayor had interviewed him beforehand.

Criticizing Brewer, who is African American, without giving him a chance could hurt Villaraigosa with a key political constituency.

“The big risk is that if Mayor Villaraigosa attacked Brewer publicly or undermined him behind the scenes, nitpicking every step along the way, he would undermine everything he’s done the last couple of years to win the goodwill of African American voters,” said political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who founded the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.

“The mayor will say all the right things publicly, but you have to watch over the next couple of weeks what he does privately,” Hutchinson said.

It is possible that the coming days will see a sort of mutual wooing process. If Brewer and Villaraigosa turn the rhetoric about partnership into reality, then, in a certain way, the politics take a back seat.

“Short term, the mayor doesn’t get to select his ‘partner,’ but long term it may not matter,” said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who is the chairwoman of the oversight committee for school construction and modernization.

“Can they accommodate each other’s visions and can Brewer overcome the political tension of how this regime change happened? If they get a good relationship, if they like each other, and they decide they want to work together, they can get a lot done.”

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writers Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.


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