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School Days for a Lame Duck

February 18, 2001

Mayor Richard Riordan has only a few months left in office but was campaigning last week on public education issues like a presidential candidate. He took a bus full of reporters, CEOs, educators, advisors and staffers from school to school Monday in the pouring rain, chatted up business leaders to adopt public schools and visited still another campus Tuesday. On Thursday at Brown University in Rhode Island he announced a coalition of big-city mayors--New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles--that will lobby for more education dollars from Washington.

Riordan, who has lamented his own lack of power over schools, is seeking support from all quarters. His office just adopted a school, Weemes Elementary, near USC, and he proposed dipping into surplus revenues generated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to provide matching funds of up to $25,000 each for the next 100 schools adopted by businesses, organizations and individuals.

The president of Occidental College (a Riordan advisor on education) quickly volunteered to provide mentors, tutors and computers to neighboring Eagle Rock Elementary School. The partnership will emphasize literacy.

At every stop, Riordan praised and made promises--grass instead of asphalt on a playground here, more computers and software there, special telephones for deaf students, a canopy over a playground lunch area being pounded by rain. Neither the mayor nor his staff knew how the items would be financed, but Riordan said he would network with friends, contact foundations and request funds from existing programs.

He also said he would do his best to raise $75 million to pay for pre-kindergarten to help all poor children in the Los Angeles school district learn to read.

What is Riordan running for? His name isn't on the April ballot, although he supports three school board candidates. Their victories would complete his remake of the Los Angeles school board and give him more than enough votes to become the next superintendent. He denies he wants the job, rumors to the contrary, and insists he only wants to help Supt. Roy Romer succeed.

Help him how? Under the city's charter, the mayor has no authority over the school district. But he can indeed call on wealthy friends and do deals that free up land needed to build new schools.

Riordan also named a school construction czar to help the district build campuses. City Hall can assist by identifying suitable land for new schools, reducing red tape and encouraging landowners to sell property to the district.

The mayor plans a trip to Washington next month for meetings with Rod Paige, the new secretary of Education, and others about getting more money for education. He says he will make the same request of Sacramento.

Though he is in the twilight of his mayoralty, and limited in what he can do about schools, Riordan's timing is favorable. Education is a stated top priority for President Bush, Gov. Gray Davis and most local candidates, including those who want to succeed Riordan at City Hall. If Riordan can accomplish most of what he lavishly promised students and teachers last week, no one will much care about his motives.

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