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A mayoral setback

Legislation giving Villaraigosa power over city schools may be flawed, as a judge ruled, but his goal is correct.

December 22, 2006

THE MAYOR OF Los Angeles should run the city's schools. That principle suffered a legal setback Thursday, but it's a principle -- embraced in other major cities across the country -- that must not be abandoned. Mayoral control enhances the accountability of school systems by placing the most representative political leader in the city in charge of the one aspect of local government that the citizenry cares most about: the education of their children.

That said, a mayoral takeover of schools in Los Angeles was always going to be a steep uphill political battle -- more so than in New York or Chicago -- and it is hard to shed tears over Assembly Bill 1381, one of the most convoluted backroom deals to be struck in Sacramento in years.

Ruling on a constitutional challenge to the bill, Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs gave Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a failing grade in his effort to pull most authority away from the elected school board, put himself and a Council of Mayors over a newly empowered superintendent and run a cluster of schools that could have as many as 75,000 students.

Unlike in other states where mayoral control of schools has been tried, California's Constitution requires that schools be governed only by "public school systems." The City Charter calls for an elected board to run the schools and for the mayor to stick to his municipal knitting. Then there is the issue of the district's boundaries extending into more than a dozen other cities.

Janavs interpreted the charter and the Constitution narrowly, refusing to buy into some of the mayor's maneuvers aimed at surmounting this challenge -- such as the Council of Mayors, the survival of the school board and the notion that the mayor's authority over schools flowed through the existing county education office.

The judge held that the charter and the Constitution are clear on the separation of municipal and educational power, and that families that would fall within the cluster of schools the mayor would directly oversee under the bill were effectively being disenfranchised, as they would have no say about the transfer. She also rejected the mayor's argument that the cluster was more like a group of charter schools, saying his schools would not receive meaningful oversight from a public school agency, as charters theoretically must.

The key legal issue at stake here -- for AB 1381 and any attempt to put a weak school system under stronger leadership -- is how narrowly to define a public school system. Janavs questioned the mayor's legal team last week when they contended that the phrase was highly expandable. Could the police chief run the schools? In her ruling, Janavs drew the line at a literal definition of a school system. Another judge might well rule in favor of a more liberal definition but one within reasonable limits -- which could include a mayor. Of course, the additional complicating factor remains that this is an attempt not simply to redefine the mayor's relationship with voters but with Los Angeles Unified School District families that live outside the city's boundaries. A districtwide vote could resolve that.

From the moment Villaraigosa forged his backroom deal with the teachers union, AB 1381 sadly was never about putting the mayor in a true governance position over the LAUSD. As the judge noted, the law split power and liability so ambiguously among him, other mayors, the school board, the superintendent and unspecified community leaders that it was hard to know who, if anyone, would be running the schools.

The mayor plans to appeal, as he should. In the meantime, while the legislation is put on hold, there will be a lot of talk about Villaraigosa's power to influence upcoming school board races and his ability to work in various ways with new Supt. David L. Brewer to improve schools, possibly even adopting charter schools to stand in for the cluster of schools the legislation offered him.

But all that is no substitute for true mayoral control, which the city needs. So Villaraigosa needs to start plotting Plan B in case he doesn't win on appeal: a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to gain full mayoral control, as Thursday's ruling would require. He may want to pursue this option in any event, to lose some of AB 1381's more cumbersome compromises.

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