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School Takeover Plan: Too Big an Assignment?

Villaraigosa will have to convince smaller cities in L.A. Unified that they won't be ceding power.

December 06, 2005|Richard Fausset and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was elected to represent Los Angeles, but he is trying to seize control of a public school system that sprawls far beyond the city limits. That geographical fact is complicating the mayor's takeover ambitions, raising legal hurdles and worrying small-city officials who fear ceding power to Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second-largest in the nation, encompassing 710 square miles. The district's boundaries are so convoluted that the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters and L.A. Unified disagree on whether they include 27 or 29 other municipalities. (They agree that the district serves two dozen unincorporated parts of the county.)

Voters in the outlying areas, who the registrar says total more than 249,000, have a say in selecting representatives on the seven-member school board. But they cannot vote for L.A.'s mayor.

Their children add up. One in five students -- 146,706 -- live outside the city of Los Angeles, according to district figures.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. public schools -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's call for a takeover of the city's public schools said the city was incorporated in 1870. It was incorporated in 1850.

Small cities have historically felt overshadowed by Los Angeles' presence in the district and now wonder if a takeover would make things worse.

"Why would we take all of our opportunity to have a voice and give it to someone else to our own exclusion?" said West Hollywood City Councilman Jeff Prang. "I just think there's an incredible lack of attention by anyone to consider what happens to these ... other cities."

Prang and other officials are trying to be heard in the debate. In September, Prang persuaded his colleagues to vote unanimously for a resolution decreeing that West Hollywood "does not support any reforms that diminish the independence or representation of independent cities." He has been urging other leaders to adopt similar resolutions.

Meanwhile, school board President Marlene Canter said she expects to meet before Christmas with officials from the outlying cities to discuss mayoral control.

A number of small-city officials say a mayoral takeover could prompt them to try to leave L.A. Unified for good. Villaraigosa's office is also open to the possibility of a district breakup if it would help the mayor improve the educational experience for students within Los Angeles.

"When you look at governance reform, everything is up for grabs," said mayoral counsel Thomas Saenz, who is heading Villaraigosa's takeover effort. "The current configuration of the district is not a given -- that it would survive that way forever -- at all. And that's not news, because some of these municipalities have toyed with the possibility of seceding from LAUSD in the past."

Saenz said Villaraigosa plans to take the small cities' concerns into account, and he noted that his office has only begun to study the takeover options. But Prang and others said they would remain nervous until they saw a detailed plan.

Villaraigosa has yet to unveil specifics as to how he plans to wrest control from the elected school board, if at all. Nor has he said how he plans to reform the district's massive bureaucracy.

In recent weeks, however, he has repeatedly chided the school board and the teachers union for resisting reforms and said that a takeover would be the best way to boost student achievement and graduation rates.

A takeover of Los Angeles' schools would be much more complicated than in other large cities, such as New York and Chicago, where the mayors have control of the school districts. In those cities, the district and the city boundaries are the same.

Some of the reform models Saenz describes would give L.A.'s mayor the ability to appoint most members of the school board while allowing a smaller number of other board members to be chosen either by elected leaders or voters in the smaller cities.

Some small-city officials, such as Councilman George Cole of Bell, say they are open to a new role for the L.A. mayor in education -- as long as they are still properly represented.

Historically, Cole said, small cities like Bell have worried that Los Angeles receives a disproportionate share of money and school projects.

"I mean, they still for the most part refer to 'L.A. city schools,' " said Cole, who noted that he is a Villaraigosa supporter. "That's a huge mentality there. Our communities outside the district, especially southeast cities, have been neglected, and that's a mild term."

Carson Mayor Jim Dear -- a part-time teacher at an L.A. Unified middle school -- said he wanted to sit down with Villaraigosa before making up his mind. But for now, he said, he has "strong concerns" that a mayoral takeover would diminish Carson residents' say in district matters.

Dear noted that some Carson residents unsuccessfully tried, through a ballot measure, to secede from L.A. Unified in 2001. That sentiment could gain strength if a mayoral takeover makes people feel short-changed, he said.

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