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Judge Tosses Out Mayor's Takeover Of L.a. Schools

A law giving him control over some campuses violates state Constitution, jurist says.

Villaraigosa Vows Fight

December 22, 2006|Howard Blume and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

A Superior Court judge Thursday struck down legislation that gave Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District, a stunning setback to his plans for assuming direct control of dozens of Los Angeles schools.

Judge Dzintra Janavs said the law, which would have taken effect Jan. 1, violated multiple provisions of the state Constitution and the Los Angeles City Charter. She ordered public officials "to refrain from enforcing or implementing" any part of Assembly Bill 1381, which codified Villaraigosa's powers.

In a late afternoon news conference, the mayor vowed to seek an expedited appeal.

"I believe we have the law on our side. I believe we have the Constitution on our side," Villaraigosa said. "More than that, I believe we have the people on our side."

The mayor said he might ask the California Supreme Court to take the case immediately. In an appeal, the mayor's lawyers can make their case anew; the higher courts are not bound by the ruling.

School Board President Marlene Canter was elated at the ruling, but remained measured in her reaction, pledging to work with the mayor.

"I am gratified that the court struck down AB 1381 in its entirety," Canter said. "It confirms my long-standing belief that this legislation was unconstitutional and not in the best interest of our students."

After a private conversation in the wake of the ruling that included Villaraigosa and schools Supt. David L. Brewer, Canter said "we all agreed to work together on behalf of our students." But when pressed for details, she spoke not of including the mayor in education-related decisions, but about cooperation in keeping schools and neighborhoods safe.

The ruling was a sweeping preliminary victory for L.A. Unified, and puts in question Villaraigosa's education agenda, which was embodied in the legislation before the court. It was a rare setback for a mayor who had enjoyed a series of political triumphs.

It also underlines the importance of the March school board elections, in which four of seven board seats are on the ballot. The current school board majority vigorously opposed the law and sued to overturn it.

Under the law, Villaraigosa would have ratified the hiring and firing of future superintendents through a "Council of Mayors" that he would have dominated. And he also would have had direct authority over three low-performing high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.

Janavs found the entire law defective.

"The statute makes drastic changes in the local governance of the LAUSD, giving the Mayor a role that is unprecedented in California," she said in her 20-page ruling, adding that the law "completely deprives the LAUSD governing board of any ability to control or influence the actions or decisions" in schools under the mayor's control.

This transfer of power was a primary goal of the legislation, but Janavs rejected that transfer as contrary to the California Constitution on numerous grounds. Fundamentally, she said, the Constitution forbids transferring authority over schools to entities outside the public school system.

She cited a 1946 constitutional amendment that "specifically removed municipal authority over school districts and appears to reflect the people's determination to separate municipal functions from school functions due to the variety of conflicts that arise between their respective interests."

The mayor's side argued that the Legislature had broad authority to designate the mayor, or any entity, as a valid education agency to oversee schools.

But the judge sided with district lawyers who argued that such reasoning would allow the Legislature to hand over schools to Jiffy Lube.

"The Mayor of Los Angeles [and] the members of the Council of Mayors ... are not 'authorities' within the Public School System or 'officers of the public schools,' " Janavs wrote.

She also concluded that the law violated the Los Angeles City Charter and the state Constitution by weakening the school board's authority and by putting Villaraigosa in conflicting management roles.

She explicitly invalidated the entire law. "There is substantial evidence that [the law's] passage," she wrote, "was the result of political compromise and that its provisions are so interconnected

The district's legal allies included individual parents, long-established parent groups, the League of Women Voters, the school administrators' union and the California School Boards Assn., which hailed the decision.

"The constitutional protection of the public schools and their separation from other municipal authorities is what was embedded in the Constitution and approved by the people decades ago, and it was worth fighting for," said Scott P. Slotkin, the California School Boards Assn.'s executive director. "We're deeply grateful for the judge's decision because there are a number of mayors who were looking at this very carefully and thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool to take over the school district.' "

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