Deal would give mayor say on some L.A. schools

Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his former adversaries from the Los Angeles Unified School District are expected to announce a partnership today that will provide the mayor with a scaled-back version of the authority he has sought over city schools.

Villaraigosa and his senior education aides will play a major role in overseeing two of the city’s lowest-achieving high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed them under an agreement with the Board of Education and schools Supt. David L. Brewer.

“I think you’ll see a change in the culture of our schools almost immediately,” the mayor said Tuesday of the partnership that would begin to exert its influence over schools in the fall of 2008, part way through his fourth year in office.


But Villaraigosa must first win over skeptical teachers and community organizers.

The president of the Los Angeles teachers union said he wanted two-thirds of the teachers at any school under consideration to agree before joining the mayor’s partnership -- a higher threshold than the simple majority required to convert to a charter school, which operates free from many district and state rules.

“While we are absolutely in favor of partnerships, whether with the mayor’s office or other entities, there can be no hostile takeover of schools,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy. “For a partnership to be productive, the vast majority of the members have to want it.”

A spokeswoman for Villaraigosa said today’s announcement would not specify a percentage of teachers who must vote for the partnership but instead would call for a “significant number” of instructors, parents and community members to favor such a move.

School board member Tamar Galatzan, a Villaraigosa ally, said Duffy’s two-thirds demand would pose too steep an obstacle for grass-roots reformers. “If you make it harder to join [the partnership] than to join a charter, you’re going to push schools that don’t want to go charter in that direction.”

Until recently, Villaraigosa and district leaders had been engaged in a protracted legal fight over legislation that would have given him substantial control over the school district, which has struggled for years to raise student performance and reduce the number of dropouts.

After losing two rounds in court, however, Villaraigosa abandoned his original plan in May and sought the partnership with district leaders, including a new board majority that he helped elect last spring.

The mayor, Brewer and school board President Monica Garcia are scheduled to unveil the outlines of their collaboration at a news conference this morning at John Liechty Middle School in the Pico-Union district near downtown.

The deal calls for the creation of a nonprofit organization -- representing the city, the district, parents and others -- that would contract with the district to manage two families of schools during an initial five-year period. The nonprofit group also would work with the district’s innovation division to spread successful practices from the mayor’s schools districtwide.

Some L.A. Unified leaders said Villaraigosa can marshal resources for schools that might otherwise be impossible. The mayor and his deputies already have raised nearly $2 million in philanthropic contributions for his educational initiatives, his top education advisor said.

Garcia, the mayor’s closest ally on the school board, applauded his overtures.

“Only through partnerships with key stakeholders like the city, county and higher education institutions will we make the changes necessary for the ultimate goal of 100% graduation,” she said.

Villaraigosa’s aides said partnership campuses would be chosen by the end of this year from 20 of the district’s lowest-achieving high schools, including his alma mater, Roosevelt High, in Boyle Heights.

The selected campuses would gain greater control over their operations in exchange for stepped-up accountability. Principals and teachers, for example, would have new power over their budgets -- something schools tried with limited success as part of the LEARN reforms of the early 1990s.

Many parents, teachers and administrators came away disillusioned after the district failed then to adequately hand schools budget control.

Villaraigosa and his senior education advisors insist that the new approach will be different because of its collaborative nature and a climate that is ripe for change.

The mayor’s aides said he expects the partnership campuses to improve at a faster rate than other district schools, demonstrating marked progress in test scores and graduation, dropout and truancy rates -- the result of the institutional freedoms they will enjoy.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Villaraigosa said. “We’ve got to create a community partnership to turn around our schools. That path will be a very long journey, one, though, that will have outcomes and results all along the way.”

Some teachers and community organizers remain skeptical.

Roosevelt High School math teacher Randy Child has been attending meetings since December on efforts to improve schools in the Boyle Heights neighborhood -- meetings organized by the well-established groups InnerCity Struggle and the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative, among others.

Though teachers are enthusiastic about some of the proposals -- creating smaller learning communities, giving teachers more say on instruction -- they are much cooler to reforms that have Villaraigosa in charge because of the ugly legal fight over mayoral control, Child said.

“Once they hear the mayor is involved, they’re incredibly suspicious, and there’s good reason,” he said. “We didn’t think that the plan [the mayor] was advancing was good for the schools.”

Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, said her group had not yet decided whether to endorse the mayor’s partnership because she didn’t know enough about it. Brenes, who plans to attend today’s news conference, said she would support the two-thirds teacher requirement if the union deems it necessary.

Deputy Mayor Ramon C. Cortines said Villaraigosa would work only in schools that invite his team. At today’s news conference, the mayor is expected to outline a process for schools and communities to decide whether to join the partnership.

One education activist said there was already momentum to make Roosevelt’s group of schools part of the mayor’s initiative.

“We have many community leaders lined up,” said Maria Casillas, interim executive director of the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative. “And they are eager to create a partnership with the district and with the mayor.”