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Mayor Talks Tough to Push School Takeover

Villaraigosa accuses officials of obstructing reform. Some are taken aback by the rhetoric.

November 21, 2005|Joel Rubin and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has begun selling his plan to seize control of the ailing Los Angeles Unified School District with strident language that is worrying and confusing the city's education leaders.

In three speeches and an interview last week, he accused the teachers union and the school board of standing in the way of crucial reform.

"I have been an absolute supporter of L.A. public schools, but I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to reform these schools without taking on the status quo," Villaraigosa told The Times. "I am not looking to alienate anyone, but I am going to make the case for public accountability ... right now, no one's accountable."

Villaraigosa has set an ambitious agenda as mayor, but the school takeover may be his most daring gambit, throwing him into the treacherous thicket of education politics.

His strong rhetoric has electrified some audiences. But it has also left school board members and district officials in a tricky position. On the one hand, they are frustrated by what they say are the mayor's unfair and untruthful characterizations of the district; on the other, they don't want to appear defensive or antagonistic toward him.

"I think the mayor's entire conversation is based on an assumption that the district is moving in the wrong direction," said school board President Marlene Canter. "And that is flat-out wrong."

Recently, Villaraigosa's team has begun developing a takeover strategy for the nation's second-largest school district. They are studying how other big-city mayors, including Richard Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York, took control. But so far mayoral aides have offered few, if any, specifics on a takeover plan.

The mayor has been unapologetic about his ramped-up rhetoric yet he continues to insist that "consensus" is key to success. Those apparently mixed messages are leaving some of his supporters confused.

Many acknowledge that Villaraigosa -- a former organizer for the city teachers union and speaker of the state Assembly -- is a master negotiator. But they also wonder if he should be risking a fight fraught with deep political implications.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered a costly loss this month when he took on the powerful California Teachers Assn. and others in labor with his special election propositions.

"The teachers union is an incredible force to be reckoned with," said Darry Sragow, a political strategist who recently ran the district's successful $4-billion school bond campaign. "To a significant degree, teachers at a statewide level are responsible for bringing down a popular governor. Now, the difference with our mayor is he was one of them ... so maybe he's decided they'll cut him more slack."

Former Mayor Richard Riordan, a longtime proponent of a takeover, said he hoped Villaraigosa could keep everyone at the table.

"I'm an optimist," Riordan said. "Antonio is a great lover of the unions and loved by the union members. And I think he could make some sort of compromise."

During his election campaign, when many voters were citing education reform as a top priority, Villaraigosa said he would support mayoral control of Los Angeles Unified. But the issue has been a persistent frustration for the new mayor.

He has never wavered in his support of the idea, but he has been criticized for moving too slowly. Soon after his swearing-in, the mayor refused to back a state Senate bill that would have given him the power to hire the superintendent and replace the seven elected board members.

Villaraigosa argued that the bill was unconstitutional, but he also said he needed time to do what he does best -- that is, subtly cajole and persuade his opponents until they relent.

In the meantime, Villaraigosa convened his own panel of education experts. In public, the mayor praised the group's recommendations, which addressed such issues as safe routes to school. But Villaraigosa found them underwhelming, said sources close to the mayor.

Carolyn Webb de Macias, the mayor's senior advisor, is refining those ideas. Mayoral counsel Thomas Saenz is heading the effort to draft a takeover plan. Among the proposals: that the mayor appoint only some of the board members.

Any plan would probably require the approval of the state Legislature, local voters and possibly the City Council, Saenz said.

The takeovers in Chicago and New York have yielded mixed results. The Illinois Legislature gave Daley control of public schools in 1995, a few years after then-Education Secretary William Bennett had called them the worst in the nation.

Daley won authority to appoint the school board and hire the superintendent and other top officials. He helped raise money for schools and eased labor unrest. Although the schools posted academic gains, their largely impoverished students still remain below national norms.

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