Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's emphasis on education in his annual State of the City address Wednesday met with a mixture of consternation and praise from city leaders, with some saying they were puzzled at the focus given the financial crisis facing City Hall.
"The mayor needs to direct his attention at what is essential, and that's the elected position of running the city," said Councilman Dennis Zine, adding that many of his San Fernando Valley constituents don't believe the city is being run smoothly. "Pave the streets, fix the sidewalks, trim the trees and provide public safety without increasing taxes. That's what I would hope he would focus on."
The mayor said he had handled such challenges successfully during his six years in office; he cited specifics including a rise in port traffic, an uptick in housing starts and the relocation of new firms inside city limits, and cited L.A. as the nation's only major city to meet a renewable energy goal of 20%. He also said that "unemployment is down from its August peak."
State data show that joblessness is now over 13% inside the city and 12.3% in Los Angeles County.
Villaraigosa spoke in the Jefferson High School auditorium, south of downtown before an audience of about 950, including City Council members, other civic leaders, students and community members.
He titled his speech "A New Contract," literally calling for a simpler, shorter work agreement for teachers that would give schools sweeping control over budgets, hiring and curriculum.
Villaraigosa has no direct authority over the nation's second-largest school system, but he helped elect an allied school-board majority over which he wields substantial influence.
Incoming schools Supt. John Deasy echoed the imperative for "less regulation and more innovation," saying in an interview: "We can push this to be a model in the country if we all have the will to do this."
Teachers union leader A.J. Duffy said that he favors local control at schools, but that the teachers contract is irrelevant compared to the crisis over slashed funding for schools.
With the city also under financial duress, the mayor's aides said he would outline his plan for solving the city's $350-million budget gap next week. In his speech, he promised "a sustainable long-term solution to our structural deficit" while filling 300,000 potholes and holding the line on one of his main priorities: keeping the police force at 9,963 officers.
City Controller Wendy Greuel and Council President Eric Garcetti acknowledged the importance of improving schools but said they were still waiting to hear crucial details of how the mayor intended to confront the deficit — a task they said should consume much of his time and energy.
"We are clearly not out of the woods yet," said Greuel, a potential mayoral candidate. "The focus needs to continue to be on balancing the budget and being fiscally responsible."
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President Gary L. Toebben called the opportunity to improve schools "perishable," adding, "this community needs to rally together to reform and improve our schools."
The mayor, who has faced criticism in past years for announcing city initiatives without bringing them to fruition, announced no new ones. And he told civic leaders during a Wednesday breakfast meeting at Getty House that he intends to make education a centerpiece of his final two years.
Included in those plans is a push to end traditional tenure protections for teachers, which now is earned after two years of employment.
School board member Steve Zimmer responded that the tenure process should be changed, not eliminated — but "the mayor has a very important role to play in pushing people farther than they're comfortable going. My hope is he'll be as strong and passionate in pushing on the funding issue."