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Villaraigosa won’t give up on schools

Times Staff Writers

After suffering another legal rebuke Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa refused to relent on his campaign to gain substantial influence over city schools, saying he is considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

A three-judge panel from the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal issued a unanimous decision against a law designed to give Villaraigosa substantial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District. The state’s highest court is under no obligation to take the case, and some legal experts said the sweep of Tuesday’s ruling could signal poor prospects for the mayor’s legal position.

A sobered Villaraigosa seemed well aware that the decision could be the final blow to what was once the centerpiece of his education reform plan.

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“We’re obviously disappointed by the judges’ decision,” Villaraigosa said at an afternoon news conference in City Hall. “At a time when mayors in cities around America are proving that strong visible leadership can bring new hope to struggling local schools, the courts blocked the door in the Golden State.”

The law would have given Villaraigosa authority to ratify the hiring and firing of superintendents through a council of local mayors that he would have dominated.

It also would have given him direct control over three low-performing high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed them.

Affirming a ruling late last year by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, the justices found the law, Assembly Bill 1381, unconstitutional. In their one-paragraph conclusion to the 44-page opinion, the justices emphasized the Los Angeles City Charter, which calls for an elected board of education with the authority, in their view, to govern the school district.

“What is not permissible is for the Legislature to ... effectively transfer many of [the] powers of the board to the mayor, based on its belief, hope or assumption that he could do a better job,” wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey.

The mayor took issue with the justices, saying they “made a mistake” in suggesting that local voters were the only ones who could make that call.

Villaraigosa said more would be necessary than simply holding a local election to change the City Charter. Going to the voters, he said, would also require a state election to amend the California Constitution.

He estimated that such a campaign would cost $30 million to $40 million: “I can’t tell you I have the wherewithal to raise that kind of money right now.”

The mayor said he would press forward with plans to elect a friendlier school board majority and he vowed to work more closely with school board President Marlene Canter and schools Supt. David L. Brewer.

One way or another, Villaraigosa said, he remains committed to playing a key role in improving the city’s schools.

“The courts may not have ruled our way today, but we are not defeated,” he said. “We’re in the education reform business to stay.”

Legal experts said the mayor’s prospects for a successful appeal were mixed at best.

“It is highly unlikely the California Supreme Court would grant a review of this decision, in light of the unanimity and certainty of the result,” said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald F. Uelmen.

“The court normally doesn’t second-guess the resolution of issues like this, which despite their great local interest are unlikely to have any statewide impact,” he said.

Duke University constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky agreed but noted that “it is reasonable to read the state Constitution either way on this.”

A Supreme Court ruling “really still could come out either way,” said Chemerinsky, who helped craft the revised City Charter.

In a morning news conference, the school board president stopped just short of calling on the mayor to forgo an appeal.

“We have waited long enough for court decisions,” Canter said, calling on the mayor to participate in “diligent conversations we can begin to take action on.”

She reiterated the board’s willingness to work with Villaraigosa in some fashion but made clear that doesn’t mean handing the mayor wholesale control of L.A. Unified schools.

Villaraigosa called Canter and Brewer to express hopes that the two sides could collaborate further on reforms. He said progress has been made on making schools and their surrounding neighborhoods safer. He even had positive remarks about the district’s latest efforts to reduce the dropout rate, which has been a focus of the mayor’s rhetoric.

Such comments were a stark about-face from the past year, during which Villaraigosa frequently attacked the board.

As for a possible appeal, there are political considerations as well as legal ones, said Jaime A. Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs.

“If he draws this out and challenges the ruling at the Supreme Court, it would have the appearance of him fighting a losing battle and wasting time, energy and resources,” Regalado said. “If he walks away now he can say, ‘I fought the good fight.’ ”

A number of public officials rallied around Villaraigosa on Tuesday, including several City Council members who appeared with him, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I applaud the mayor for his continuous efforts to ensure that every student receives a high-quality education,” Schwarzenegger said in a written statement. “I will continue to work with the mayor in defending the innovative and necessary changes to the LAUSD.”

The ruling was not especially surprising to either side, given the tenor of questions the justices asked in a court hearing earlier this month.

“We are gratified, to be sure,” said Kevin Reed, general counsel of L.A. Unified. “Any time we have brought the issue to a neutral body ... those individuals have agreed with us.”

Villaraigosa’s backup plans have included electing a friendlier school-board majority. In the March primary, one of his favored candidates won outright. Two others could prevail in the May runoff election.

Incoming school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who was backed by the mayor, said she still supports giving the mayor schools to work with, as the law envisioned.

But she’s not persuaded that further litigation is the answer: “The longer we delay moving toward our reform agenda, the longer kids don’t have what they need.”

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howard.blume@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

‘An end-run around the Constitution’

The following are excerpts from Tuesday’s appeals court ruling, which affirmed as unconstitutional the law that would have given Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial authority over L.A. schools.

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“This is nothing more than an end-run around the Constitution. If Article IX, Section 16 [of the state Constitution] is to mean anything, it must mean that charter cities can not only choose the composition of their boards of education, but that charter cities are guaranteed freedom from legislative interference even when the Legislature is of the opinion that they have made the wrong choice.”

“We are ... concerned with a special law which provides that, although every other charter city in California may elect a board of education that can exercise all powers statutorily delegated to such local boards of education, Los Angeles may not.”

“The [law] makes no findings of crisis in the LAUSD schools. Indeed, it could not, as LAUSD schools are not the worst in the state by any measure.”

“The mayor takes the position that, since the Legislature can authorize entities to maintain the public schools, any entity authorized by the Legislature to do so is, by necessity, part of the public school system. We disagree.”

“The citizens of Los Angeles have the constitutional right to decide whether their school board is to be appointed or elected. If the citizens of Los Angeles choose to amend their charter to allow the mayor to appoint the members of the board, such amendment would indisputably be proper. What is not permissible is for the Legislature to ignore that constitutional right and to bypass the will of the citizens of Los Angeles and effectively transfer many of [the] powers of the board to the mayor, based on its belief, hope or assumption that he could do a better job.”

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Source: California Court of Appeal

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Chronology

Tuesday’s unanimous decision by a panel of judges from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal is the latest turn in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign to win some control over city schools. Here are key events:

June 17, 2005: For the first time, Villaraigosa states publicly his desire to control the Los Angeles Unified School District, telling a state legislative committee that he should be empowered to appoint members of the school board.

July 1, 2005: Villaraigosa takes office, saying in his inauguration speech that reforming the city’s troubled schools would be “a central priority of my administration.”

July 15, 2005: State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) introduces an unsuccessful bill to give Villaraigosa power to appoint members to an expanded Board of Education.

Oct. 6, 2005: In a meeting with The Times editorial board, Villaraigosa says it will take “a holy jihad” against the powerful city teachers union to win control of the school district.

March 20, 2006: Villaraigosa meets with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in New York City to discuss his authority over schools there.

April 12, 2006: The Times obtains an early draft of the mayor’s reform plan, offering a glimpse into the wide-ranging changes he was considering, including selling the district’s headquarters, keeping students in class until 5 p.m. and extending the academic year to 10 1/2 months.

May 2006: The Los Angeles Board of Education launches a public relations offensive aimed at highlighting the district’s accomplishments and slowing momentum for a mayoral takeover of schools.

June 21, 2006: In tough closed-door negotiations, Villaraigosa strikes a compromise with teachers union leaders that sets the framework for Assembly Bill 1381.

July 14, 2006: L.A. philanthropist and civic leader Eli Broad sharply criticizes Villaraigosa for making a deal with union leaders, telling the mayor he no longer supports the reform plan.

Aug. 29, 2006: The state Legislature approves AB 1381.

Sept. 18, 2006: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the bill, following through on his early public comments in support of Villaraigosa.

Oct. 10, 2006: School board and allied groups file suit, claiming AB 1381 is unconstitutional.

Dec. 21, 2006: Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs strikes down the law, barring the mayor from any plans to implement it.

March 6, 2007: Mixed results for the mayor and his allies in electing a new school board: one win, one loss and two runoffs. The board majority is still up for grabs.

Tuesday: Court of Appeal upholds the lower court’s decision that AB 1381 is unconstitutional.

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Sources: Joel Rubin and Howard Blume


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