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Court dissects mayor’s school plan

Times Staff Writers

A law that would give Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial authority over L.A.'s schools came under stiff scrutiny Monday from justices who will rule on whether it is constitutional.

The two-hour morning hearing, before a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, was a near replay of arguments before a trial court late last year. In that round, Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs tossed out the statute just days before it was to take effect.

The law would give Villaraigosa direct control of three high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them. It also would give him power, through a council of area mayors, to ratify or veto the hiring and firing of the district superintendent, the school system’s top administrator. Currently, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, is overseen by an elected seven-member board.

The trial court threw out the law, citing the state’s Constitution, which Janavs said specifically forbids transferring authority over schools to entities outside the public school system.

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As it has throughout the long-running battle, the mayor’s legal team argued that the Legislature has broad authority over education, including the right to invest Villaraigosa with the power to run L.A. Unified schools.

At Monday’s hearing, the justices asked pointed questions about that reasoning.

“So that is the premise of the your argument?” asked Justice Joan Dempsey Klein. “That because the Legislature says the mayor is part of the public school system, he is part of it?”

Justice Patti S. Kitching took up that point: “Is there any limit? If the mayor is part of the school system, can the Department of Transportation be made part of it?”

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Daniel P. Collins, a private attorney who represented the mayor’s team in defending Assembly Bill 1381, responded that he expected the Legislature to act reasonably. He also noted that mayors in other states have gained authority over local schools without legal problems.

“I understand that,” said Kitching, “but they don’t have the constitutional provisions that we do.”

Frequently during the hearing, Collins argued strenuously that the law, which would strip significant authority from the school board, is legal because neither the state’s Constitution nor the Los Angeles City Charter prohibits the Legislature from redefining duties granted to elected school boards.

Besides, said co-counsel Susan Leach, “The school board will still be elected, and they will still have important and essential duties.” Leach defended the law on behalf of state government agencies.

But the justices did not concede the point. “Governing boards control school districts, according to the Constitution,” said Justice H. Walter Croskey. “It seems to me that is a limitation I have trouble understanding how you get by.”

Justice Klein asked that the issue of voter rights be addressed: “The [city’s] charter provides that the people of Los Angeles elect a school board,” she said. “Speak to me about the elimination of the right of the people to have a voice in this new structure.”

The justices had far fewer questions for attorneys representing L.A. Unified and its legal allies, including the California School Boards Assn. and the League of Women Voters.

At several points, justices cited constitutional provisions that buttressed the school district’s arguments before its own attorneys could do so.

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Afterward, L.A. Unified general counsel Kevin Reed, who took part in the oral arguments, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“The judges did their homework,” Reed said, “and in that sense I feel good about our chances.”

School board member David Tokofsky was more blunt. “They’ve tried five different dresses,” he said referring to the mayor’s legal arguments, “but it still looks like a pig underneath.”

The mayor’s top legal advisor said he had hoped for a different focus.

“There was no discussion about the rights of kids,” said Thomas Saenz. “There was no discussion about the rights of parents. There was more focus in the courtroom on the rights of school boards.”

Despite the aggressive questioning, the court gave no direct indication about its upcoming decision. It could uphold all, part or none of the law.

A ruling is widely anticipated within a few weeks. The losing side is then expected to appeal to the California Supreme Court. The state’s highest court, however, would be under no obligation to hear the case.

Even if the mayor’s legal team prevails, Villaraigosa probably wouldn’t be able to assert authority over his group of schools until next year because of the lengthy litigation, Saenz said.

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For the moment, Villaraigosa has turned his attention to achieving influence through electing allies to the school board. In last month’s election, in which four board seats were contested, the mayor and his allies funneled well over $2 million to favored candidates. One won her race, and two others face May runoffs.

“This is all about making changes in a district that needs to change,” Saenz said, “both the legislation and efforts to elect a school board that’s committed to the mayor’s plan.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com


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