Political Rally at L.A. School Raises Questions

Times Staff Writer

As endorsement rallies go, this one was made to order: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa endorsed Democrat Phil Angelides for governor Tuesday before a crowd of cheering children chanting: “Go, Phil, Go!”

But there was a problem: Students attending Los Angeles public schools are not supposed to be used as props for partisan political events. To make matters worse, students missed class when they were not supposed to -- all the while enduring political speeches in a steaming auditorium. One group of students had to stand on stage for about an hour, and one girl fainted on stage.

What exactly happened at Foshay Learning Center, near downtown? Was it a cynical, improper manipulation of students? Or perhaps sloppy planning? Or one more sign of a disconnect between the mayor’s office and the school district?


It depends on who’s pointing the finger.

Having the event at a school in the first place was a potential problem. Board policy states, “Schools may not be used as a forum for political events -- neither individual political campaigns nor political issues.”

Pilar Marrero, a columnist for the Spanish-language La Opinion, first raised the issue in a Wednesday column.

District officials acknowledged the policy and also conceded that they allowed the event to go forward after word got to them belatedly. But students were never supposed to become advocates, they said.

“We welcome today’s current leaders to come to our schools and interact with our future leaders about the importance of community and civic engagement,” said Lucy Okumu, director of external affairs for the district.

It was, apparently, a last-minute affair -- especially considering how long the Angelides campaign had been waiting for the popular Democratic mayor to endorse the Democratic state treasurer.

Campaign staffers for the mayor started working the phones Friday along with officials of the teachers union to find a school to serve as a backdrop. The principal at Foshay was willing, provided that the district approved, said Josh Pechthalt, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles.


Pechthalt relayed the message to “the mayor’s office,” as he put it. The mayor’s office was, in this case, Mike Trujillo, working with Nathan James. Both are full-time employees of the mayor’s Excellence in L.A. Schools, which promoted Villaraigosa’s bid for substantial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Trujillo alerted Angelides’ people, said James, adding his involvement ended there.

School district senior staff said they learned of the rally about 5 p.m. on the Friday before the Labor Day holiday, when told by a Foshay assistant principal.

An Angelides spokesman insisted his campaign secured approval from district headquarters, but could provide no details.

The mayor’s office and school district headquarters never communicated with each other, a scenario with a history. In April, there were backstage accusations over who was responsible for the mayor being unable to give his State of the City address at Crenshaw High. Villaraigosa gave his speech at a charter school.

This week, district officials let the event proceed, even on the first day of the September-to-June traditional calendar -- with one additional condition: Students were to miss no classes.

The principal complied by scheduling the rally during a lunch period for older students. And some younger students were scheduled for an assembly anyway -- one on the subject of proper etiquette at assemblies.

The audience of 600 had to employ patience and endurance etiquette cold turkey: The assembly started about two hours later than originally scheduled in the steamy hall.

Meanwhile, a district staffer frantically gathered pro-Angelides signs from students. But she could not do anything to stop the students who broke out into cheers for Angelides.

“It’s obvious that students were very passionate and excited about the event,” Angelides spokesman Nick Papas said.

The campaign of incumbent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, offered another interpretation.

“On the [first] day back to school for most of these children, the question is whether or not a political rally is in students’ best educational interests,” spokesman Matt David said.

Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.