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Villaraigosa, Romer Meet to Discuss Schools

The L.A. Unified chief says they talked about the district's successes, not the mayor's bid to lead the district. Mayor says he raised the issue.

January 05, 2006|Richard Fausset and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa met behind closed doors Wednesday with city schools Supt. Roy Romer to talk about dropout rates and collaborative projects -- although they skirted the mayor's controversial proposal to take over the school system.

Romer said the meeting was the first between the two men in at least two months. Since then, Villaraigosa has increased his criticism of the Los Angeles Unified School District as he builds a case to seize control of it. The mayor's campaign has created tension between him and elected school board members, who call his attacks unfair.

Romer, who said he has not taken a position on a takeover, said the 80-minute meeting gave him a chance to describe some of the district's recent successes, including steady increases in standardized test scores. Trumpeting good news, he said, is something the district hasn't been doing well.

"I wanted to share what works and what doesn't work in this district -- what gains we've made and what challenges we now face," Romer said. "This was not a political discussion on governance."

Villaraigosa said that it was true that the two men didn't technically "discuss" his takeover plan -- because only he brought it up.

"I spoke about it," Villaraigosa said at a news conference after the meeting. "I made it absolutely clear that I will not be deterred on this issue of mayoral responsibility and accountability for our schools, on empowering parents and teachers. But we mostly focused today on what we agree on and where we can collaborate."

Villaraigosa's bold promise to take over the schools has been met with firm opposition from the teachers union and the elected school board members who govern the district. Romer has mostly stayed out of the fray, avoiding a showdown with the board that appointed him and a mayor who, in many ways, is taking up the role Romer assumed when he was appointed superintendent in 2000 -- that of a maverick gunning for reform.

Romer, a former Colorado governor, clarified his role Wednesday as the takeover controversy continues to rage around him.

"My job," he said, "is to make this work no matter who runs it."

Indeed, both men took pains to emphasize that the increasingly rancorous debate didn't infect the tone of the meeting, which was also attended by key staff members from the district and the mayor's office.

Villaraigosa said they discussed a way to resolve conflicting data on the dropout rate, an issue that has become one of the flashpoints in the emerging debate over who should run the district.

The mayor has repeatedly cited figures from a Harvard University study released last spring that concluded only about half of Los Angeles Unified students graduate on time.

District officials, in turn, point to state and district calculations that peg the dropout rate at about 33%.

Romer said he explained to Villaraigosa how the district calculates its figures and agreed to the mayor's request that an independent observer be allowed to verify its method and accuracy. In exchange, the mayor agreed to use the district's figures in the future.

"We have different agendas on governance," Romer said. "But on facts we all want to be on the same page."

The two leaders differed dramatically when recounting their discussion about sharing the costs of collaborative projects.

Villaraigosa said he and the superintendent had agreed to a plan in which the city would pay for 500 crossing guards to meet its obligation to cover 20% of the joint costs.

The original proposal called for the city and school district to split costs evenly, the mayor said, adding that he had insisted on the city paying only 20%.

Romer, however, said the discussion was much more vague. He said no agreement was reached on the crossing guards or the cost sharing.

Though he hasn't spoken out on the takeover issue, Romer has said he opposes City Controller Laura Chick's call for a city audit of the district. The topic was raised again at the meeting Wednesday.

Although the mayor has voiced support for the idea, Romer reiterated his opposition, saying Chick's call for an audit smacked of a "political campaign."

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Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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