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Romer Lashes Out at Mayor for Criticism

The L.A. schools chief says Villaraigosa's repeated claims of failures by district personnel and students are propaganda.

July 21, 2006|Joel Rubin and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stumped across Los Angeles on Thursday to drum up support for his proposed takeover of the public schools, Supt. Roy Romer unleashed a stinging rebuke of the mayor and a forceful defense of the embattled school district.

Romer lashed out at Villaraigosa, challenging the frequent attacks the mayor has leveled against the Los Angeles Unified School District during his yearlong push for control. Romer repeatedly called the assault "propaganda" and likened it to the U.S. government's campaign to justify its internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"It has tremendous consequence for this city because if you indoctrinate -- propagandize -- a population long enough into a mistruth they believe it," Romer said during his annual state of the schools address.

"This is not a failing district. This is a district that has more success than any other metropolitan district in California in the last six years."

Villaraigosa fired back, holding an afternoon news conference at City Hall to counter Romer's sanguine assessment of the district and lambaste him for his comments.

"What [Romer] said was outrageous. I think we all know that. He should immediately retract his remarks," Villaraigosa said. "To compare the facts of what is going on here in L.A. Unified to the internment of the Japanese is absolutely wrong."

Some Japanese American leaders demanded an apology from Romer, calling his remarks insensitive. Former school board member Warren Furutani said he learned about Romer's comments when a member of Villaraigosa's school takeover campaign committee called and faxed him the remarks. Furutani and others in the Japanese American community then held a hastily arranged news conference at the Japanese American National Museum.

"I thought it was pretty offensive to try to connect Antonio to the same propaganda machine that put Japanese in internment camps during World War II," said Furutani, who is a member of the community college board. "I thought that was out of bounds."

In a statement, Romer stood by his criticisms of the mayor but apologized to anyone offended by his comments.

Romer, who will depart this fall after six years as superintendent, spent much of his 35-minute speech using figures and charts aimed at picking apart the mayor's characterization of the district as a failure. He pointed to strong gains district students have posted on state test scores, while presenting data that indicate the district is performing on par or better than New York and other large urban systems.

Speaking to about 200 people in the library at the new Santee Learning Complex, Romer touted the district's $19-billion construction program that aims to build about 150 schools and renovate hundreds of others. Romer appeared confident, roaming the small stage with large photos of students hanging behind him. Absent were the mayor and teachers union chief A.J. Duffy.

Romer also assailed Villaraigosa for the deal he struck with the state's powerful teachers unions last month to make way for the proposed legislation that would give him considerable control of the district.

"How can we allow elected officials to get together at midnight in a hotel room in Sacramento and on the back of an envelope begin to dictate the future of your children based on false information?" Romer said.

To help shape their strategy in fighting the bill, district officials said Thursday they have hired political heavyweights John Burton and Richard Polanco, both former state senators. In addition, political consultant Sue Burnside is expected to coordinate outreach to parents. Burton and Polanco, who each are being paid $35,000, joined school financing expert John Mockler, who was hired at $10,000 a month.

The superintendent's barrage did nothing to quiet the mayor. At his news conference, he cited several recent studies that concluded that only about half of the students in the L.A. system graduate on time. Villaraigosa has used the studies repeatedly to hammer district leadership for failing to increase graduation rates.

Later Thursday, Villaraigosa visited a Westwood church to discuss his school reform plan with about 500 people, some of them bused in by the mayor's campaign committee.

After an aide outlined the proposed legislation, AB 1381, Villaraigosa spent about 45 minutes answering a wide range of questions, some of which he has encountered repeatedly. Audience members, for example, asked why Villaraigosa decided to seek legislation instead of putting the issue to a local vote and questioned how his plan would retain teachers in the district's worst schools.

Villaraigosa said he sought the legislation to avoid a costly local fight and pledged to provide incentives to attract senior teachers to troubled schools.

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