BATTLE OVER L.A. SCHOOLS SHIFTS TO MAY RUNOFF
Having failed to gain a clear verdict from voters, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles teachers union braced Wednesday for a costly and divisive runoff election that will determine whether Villaraigosa gains a friendly majority on the Board of Education -- and a long-sought measure of control over the sprawling, troubled school system.
Tuesday’s election, with the percentage of voter turnout in single digits, left Villaraigosa with one win, one loss and two runoffs in the San Fernando Valley and the Harbor area. His endorsed candidates will enter as favorites in elections scheduled for May 15.
United Teachers Los Angeles leaders said they would not challenge Villaraigosa’s candidate in the Harbor area, where no one candidate won union support. That leaves the Valley as the decisive battleground.
The runoff there will pit the mayor’s favored candidate, Tamar Galatzan, against UTLA-backed incumbent Jon M. Lauritzen. Galatzan claimed 44% of Tuesday’s vote; Lauritzen about 40%.
The first round was a bitterly contested, extremely expensive scrap in which fewer than 29,000 voters cast ballots. The mayor’s committee threw in more than $1.15 million -- about 80% of Galatzan’s total. UTLA countered with $475,000 and a troupe of teacher volunteers for Lauritzen.
Since taking office, Villaraigosa has made improving schools in the nation’s second-largest district a centerpiece of his administration. He first sought complete control but then settled, in a legislative compromise, for a power-sharing arrangement. That law is stymied in the courts.
His latest bid was to win influence through electing allies to the school board. He needed three wins in the four races to reliably overturn a current board majority that has opposed his intervention efforts.
Neither heavyweight -- the mayor nor the union -- especially wants the rematch in the Valley.
“We don’t have much choice,” UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt said Wednesday. “Clearly, we wanted to have this resolved last night, but our membership sees this race as important and we’re going to have to continue ahead.”
The same logic applied for Villaraigosa. But he also took pains Wednesday morning to strike a conciliatory tone toward board members whom he had collectively lambasted in recent months.
At a Wednesday news conference, he acknowledged, perhaps for the first time, that a state law that gives him substantial authority over the school system may not survive an ongoing legal challenge. The city’s children must still be helped, he said, and he intends to do his part.
In practical terms, this meant Monday peace overtures from the mayor in phone calls to Lauritzen and school board President Marlene Canter -- after Villaraigosa had refused for months to meet with her. Villaraigosa also called L.A. Unified Supt. David L. Brewer, as well as board members Julie Korenstein and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.
What did he tell them?
“I said no matter what happens, I want a partnership,” he said. “We have to work together.” Of Canter, he said: “I know she cares for kids.”
Both were attending the launch of a health-education initiative at Joseph LeConte Middle School in Hollywood. In an earnest moment, Villaraigosa even grasped Canter’s hand momentarily behind the podium.
Just before the media event, Canter talked in similar terms: “The mayor called me and said it was time for a clean slate ... and I said I’ve been waiting for this since the day I was elected as board president.”
LaMotte, speaking Tuesday night, was not so forgiving.
She had just won a hard-fought reelection bid over charter school operator Johnathan Williams, whose campaign was well funded by close allies of the mayor.
“All of the things I have gone through, all of the lies, were manifested to get me out,” LaMotte said. “It’s going to take some time for me to be conciliatory.”
The mayor’s outreach, she said, “should have come earlier. Not now.”
Villaraigosa had made the strategic decision not to endorse LaMotte’s opponent in hopes of avoiding a falling out with the black political establishment, which was almost fully behind LaMotte. But he seemed to fool no one.
“I’m actually glad Marguerite had to run against someone, because it has sent a message: Leave us the hell alone!” said City Councilman Herb Wesson at LaMotte’s Leimert Park victory party.
Many black leaders viewed Villaraigosa’s school-intervention agenda as tantamount to diluting black political power.
State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who has been a frequent Villaraigosa ally, echoed Wesson: “A lot was at stake here tonight, and many of us were taking this very seriously. Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte became a symbol for us.”
So the mayor tried again Wednesday morning, speaking to LaMotte through reporters: “I want to work with her. She’s duly elected.” He recalled that LaMotte had once held a fundraiser for him: “She’s a friend.”
A partnership with the school board, he said, “is inevitable. We’ve got to figure out what it looks like.”
Villaraigosa has substantial motivation to reach out, said political strategist Darry Sragow, who has advised the school board throughout its battle with the mayor, but also has worked closely with Villaraigosa in the past.
“The net results of everything so far, including the election, is that a year and a half later, he’s roughly where he started,” Sragow said. “There are a lot of people who hope that he sees that and hope that he is ready to sit down and partner with the school board on fixing the schools.”
Sragow said that he could understand some suspicion on the part of board members: “A lot of feelings were hurt, a lot of angry things were said.... Some board members are going to be slower to accept that his tone is genuine.”
Even if Villaraigosa’s candidates prevail, veteran political observers said four allies would not guarantee that the mayor would get what he wanted.
It is more likely to be an issue-by-issue give-and-take, said former board member Caprice Young, who was elected as part of a slate that was backed by then-Mayor Richard Riordan.
“People often overestimate the influence of the mayor,” Young said. “You can have political allies, but the bottom line is that the elected board members are the ones sitting in those chairs. They’re the ones casting the votes, not the mayor.... [Mayoral control] is just not how it works. You have seven individuals with different views and concerns.”
The mayor’s candidates do agree on one thing -- they all say they want L.A. Unified to withdraw from the legal challenge to Villaraigosa’s school-intervention law. Other parties to the lawsuit say they will press on regardless.
Among other provisions, the law would give Villaraigosa control of three high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them. Although union leaders supported the law, they now express misgivings over so completely separating a group of schools from the rest of L.A. Unified.
Board politics -- and the direction of future reforms -- promise to be an evolving, somewhat unpredictable work in progress, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton.
“The elections create a much more fluid situation,” Sonenshein said. “The control issue is much more in flux. Neither the union nor the mayor want to burn bridges to each other.... They both expect to work with each other after this is all over.”
Although the results were less than the mayor wanted, it was progress nonetheless, said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “If I’m the mayor, I’m pretty happy today,” he said. “I went from [one ally] to two with two more races leaning my way.”
Villaraigosa’s one outright win was in Eastside District 5, where Yolie Flores Aguilar used the mayor’s money and her community ties to cruise to victory. In the Harbor area District 7, the Villaraigosa-backed Richard Vladovic will face retired principal Neal B. Kleiner.
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School board election to be continued
In Tuesday’s election for four seats on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board, candidates favored by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won one seat and lost another. Two seats - Districts 3 and 7 - remain up for grabs in a May 15 runoff.
*--* Candidates Votes received Jon M. Lauritzen* 11,536 Tamar Galatzan 12,857
*--* Registered voters 315,181 Schools 117 Enrollment 105,575
*--* Candidates Votes received Neal B. Kleiner 2,853 Richard A. Vladovic 4,008
*--* Registered voters 224,712 Schools 123 Enrollment 119,346
Sources: LAUSD, L.A. city elections division, L.A. County registrar/recorder and clerk