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L.A. Schools Plan Splits Capitol

Governor backs mayor's takeover proposal, which faces a battle from teachers unions, some legislators and other cities in district.

April 20, 2006|Jordan Rau and Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to take control of the city's public school system faces substantial resistance in the California Legislature, where it must overcome opposition from Republicans and lobbying by powerful teachers unions and other municipalities to win the necessary approval.

Villaraigosa's proposal was endorsed Wednesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said, "This is exactly the kind of thing that ought to be done."

Although the Legislature's Democratic leaders said they were eager to have lawmakers evaluate it, they would not make a commitment to the version the mayor has designed. His plan would create a "council of mayors" that Los Angeles' leader would in effect control.

"We're going to do everything we can to come up with a reasonable bill that could be something that could move the mayor's agenda and the students of Los Angeles forward," Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said.

The conflicting responses -- support from a Republican governor for an initiative advanced by Los Angeles' liberal Democratic mayor, and reservations from the mayor's customary union allies -- reflect the complex politics surrounding Villaraigosa's takeover proposal and foreshadow a potentially contentious debate in the Capitol.

The measure -- outlined in the mayor's State of the City address Tuesday -- faces a variety of political and legal obstacles. A similar proposal last year died in the state Senate, done in amid strong labor opposition as well as a lack of support by Villaraigosa, who objected to some details and preferred to devise his own version.

There was disagreement Wednesday about whether Villaraigosa's plan could be approved by a majority of legislators or whether it would take a change in the state Constitution, which would require a supermajority of the Legislature and a popular vote within the district. Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Assn., predicted that if a measure passes, it would be tied up in court challenges for years.

The teachers unions, which hold great sway in Sacramento, said they would work aggressively to block Villaraigosa's plan. Democratic legislators are particularly sensitive to union views in election years such as this one because many rely heavily on campaign support from teachers. However, it is not yet clear how much effort the unions will devote to this fight given their other political goals, which include unseating Schwarzenegger this fall.

United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy said his union, which represents the district's 48,000 teachers, would "talk to every legislator that will listen to us" about opposing Villaraigosa's plan. The California Teachers Assn., which represents educators throughout the state, will also oppose the measure.

"We do not support mayoral control in any shape or form," said the association's president, Barbara Kerr. "I know Antonio's heart is in the right place, he has great ideas, but I'd rather concentrate on doing good things for students than on a bureaucratic law."

Villaraigosa's proposal received a sympathetic reception from some powerful legislators. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), a close ally and former lobbyist for the school district, said the mayor deserved credit for tackling "a humongous problem" and said the proposal "will get the consideration it deserves."

Perata noted that the schools in his home city of Oakland ended up in receivership after the mayor was unable to secure control.

Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who had chastised Villaraigosa for not backing her takeover proposal last year, praised his new effort.

"Of course, there's going to be massive opposition, undoubtedly, but we are up here to do big things," she said. "I think we have the muscle, I know we have the will."

But it may be a hard sell to many legislators.

"If there are problems, I don't know you solve them by taking the power away from the democratically elected board," Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said.

The chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a former teacher, called mayoral control undemocratic and an oversimplification that would not fix the district's fundamental problem: its lack of money.

She also said she feared the district would be whipsawed by changing philosophies every time a new mayor was elected.

There are 26 municipalities besides Los Angeles that are part of the district, and leaders of some cities are already objecting to the mayor's plan because it would give him 80% of the "council of mayors" votes apportioned by population.

Republican legislators have proposed dividing the district, the nation's second-largest, into smaller units and are unlikely to back the proposal.

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