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More board games

July 18, 2006

IF WE HAD OUR DRUTHERS, the Los Angeles school board as it is currently constituted would be abolished. The mayor would be in charge of the schools, making him the one person accountable for their successes and failures, and he would be overseen by an elected body (something like a school board, though we wouldn't want to get bogged down in semantics) that would provide a political check but not meddle in day-to-day administration.

If that can't happen -- and it looks unlikely, but we can still hope -- then the next best thing may be to give the board a raise.

Let us explain. We yield to no one (not even the mayor) in our enthusiasm for reform of the L.A. Unified School District generally and mayoral control in particular. Nor have we been shy about our disappointment in Antonio Villaraigosa's ill-considered, accountability-blurring compromise now being fine-tuned as Assembly Bill 1381. One of the chief problems with that bill is that it retains a school board beholden to the teachers union for campaign money and an entrenched bureaucracy for policy guidance. Legislators still have a chance to alter AB 1381 so that it better serves voters, parents and students by offering a clear line of authority over the schools' performance.

But under the present system, or the system as it would emerge if the bill passes in its current form, the hands-on board remains intact. Such a board would best be unbuckled from the teachers union and the district bureaucracy by being forced to meet standards met by most other elected bodies in California.

This morning, the City Council is to begin debate on whether to place three reforms proposed by Councilman Jose Huizar, a former school board president, on the November ballot. Under the Huizar proposal, school board candidates would be subjected to campaign contribution limits and disclosure rules. No longer could a candidate run with a war chest made up of one or two checks from United Teachers Los Angeles or a handful of construction contractors.

The second reform is full-time pay. If there is going to be a full-time board -- still a big "if' in our minds -- then a salary of about $25,000 is just silly. It allows board members to avoid responsibility (after all, it's just a part-time job) while allowing unelected players, such as bureaucrats and unions, to set the agenda.

Finally, there are term limits. We don't like term limits. They make elected officials perpetual rookies, always behind the curve when facing off against entrenched bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors or unions. But if they're what it takes for voters to accept these other reforms, then they may be worth it.

We may still say "no" to the council's final ballot measure, which will include the details of these reforms. If the Legislature emerges in August with a diminished school board as part of a more responsible reform, we -- and voters -- will have the flexibility to reject the measures that we now ask the council to put on the ballot.

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