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A savvy end run on schools

Villaraigosa bypasses L.A. voters in favor of a Sacramento fight he thinks he can win.

April 23, 2006|Howard Blume | Howard Blume is managing editor of the Jewish Journal.

IN TUESDAY'S State of the City address, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a crafty political maneuver to take control of the city's schools -- bypass the voters. His preferred field of battle is Sacramento, where he will rely on the Legislature to put him in charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is, in effect, pitting his lobbying clout in the capital against that of teachers unions and the L.A. school district.

If successful, Villaraigosa could begin his reign over the schools less than a year from now, as soon as Jan. 1, 2007, earlier than even his staff had predicted a few weeks ago.

The plan to sidestep the voters seemed to surprise his opponents, which handed the advantage to Villaraigosa, at least in the short term.

The teachers union had been gearing up for a "local" slugfest, an expectation fed by Villaraigosa's staff, which earlier this year said the mayor planned to put the school governance issue on the ballot. The day before Villaraigosa's speech, union leaders appeared with a coalition of community groups to tout their reform plan, which would strengthen the school board rather than handing over authority to the mayor. The phalanx of community activists sent Villaraigosa a message: Deal with us -- or be prepared to battle for the verdict of Los Angeles. It promised to be the biggest fraternal tilt since Valley secession.

But that head-to-head won't happen, if Villaraigosa gets his way, because of an inspired manipulation of the City Charter and a political fig leaf called the Council of Mayors.

The City Charter is a problem because it sets up the school board as the governing body of the school district. If Villaraigosa had tried to eliminate the board, or alter its numbers or the boundaries of the election districts, the charter would have to be revised. And he would have to submit those changes to the voters.

But Villaraigosa's plan leaves the charter untouched, relying instead on the wording of Charter Section 805, which states, "The Board of Education shall have power to control and manage the public schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the state." Right now, the "laws of the state" have the school board in charge. But the Legislature has the authority to amend those laws. Just like that, pending a legal challenge, the "problem" posed by the City Charter is solved.

But there's another hurdle: L.A. Unified crosses into 27 municipalities. How could the mayor of L.A. possibly preside over schools beyond his territorial jurisdiction? That would appear undemocratic. It might even be unconstitutional.

Villaraigosa's clever answer to that seemingly insurmountable problem is the proposed Council of Mayors. Let them all have their say and their vote, he says, but at the end of the day their authority would be proportional to the number of each city's residents. The result is that Villaraigosa would be both a majority and a supermajority. That's because the population tracks the distribution of students, and L.A. students make up 80% of the school district.

Viewed that way, the Council of Mayors seems more like a legal and political ploy than a meaningful body, although the mayor's staff insists that Villaraigosa's hallmark is to operate by consensus. As for future mayors, well, time will tell. Under Villaraigosa's plan, the council could meet as infrequently as twice a year: once to review L.A. Unified's budget, and once to pass it. If the superintendent needs anything else from his putative bosses, the best bet would be to dial Villaraigosa's cellphone.

The lead architect of the takeover strategy is Thomas Saenz, a 39-year-old former litigation director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was involved in the successful effort to revive the Belmont Learning Complex project and also in fighting Proposition 187, which targeted illegal immigrants, and Proposition 227, which dismantled most traditional bilingual education.

Saenz, as a longtime activist for minority rights, typifies one segment of Villaraigosa's broad base of supporters. This base also includes old-guard power brokers such as former Mayor Richard Riordan, liberal state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Valley stalwart Bob Hertzberg, Westside Councilman Jack Weiss and business-friendly Councilman Bernard Parks. Villaraigosa will need every piece of this diverse tapestry to deflect and outmaneuver critics, who will seize on the lack of a ballot measure.

So, why not a ballot measure? The short answer is that the takeover would take longer and be a lot more expensive, both in taxpayer funds and in campaign fundraising. Besides, United Teachers Los Angeles is a formidable, well-funded election foe, with lots of likable foot troops -- teachers -- to put in the field. Villaraigosa probably remembers how much the union helped him defeat James K. Hahn -- and how effectively it manhandled school board candidates backed by Riordan.

Villaraigosa already has two key allies in Sacramento: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who quickly endorsed the takeover proposal, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), a longtime friend who is not inclined to pick a fight with the mayor.

Still, substantial political risk remains because there's also strong resistance in Sacramento to the plan and there's always the specter of a legal challenge to, say, the Council of Mayors. Even an unsuccessful lawsuit could delay Villaraigosa's ambition. A successful one, based on constitutional issues, would force him to deal or even back down. Then, he probably would have to turn to the voters after all, having lost valuable time in his finite tenure as mayor. The next few months will tell if Villaraigosa's plan is strategically brilliant or just too clever by half.

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