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Mayor Gets Takeover Tutorial in New York

Villaraigosa meets with Big Apple's mayor and learns how he gained control of schools.

March 21, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Seeking advice on his bid to run the Los Angeles schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa journeyed 3,000 miles Monday to study how New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won control of the nation's largest public school system.

Villaraigosa conducted a whirlwind tour of the city's education establishment, visiting Bloomberg, his schools chief, business leaders and the head of the local teachers union.

"I'm going to school in New York," he joked. "The reason I am here, frankly, is that I am an admirer."

But even as Villaraigosa toured back East, he caused an uproar back home by revealing further details about his plans for running the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He reiterated his desire to keep an elected school board. He added that he not only wants to appoint the superintendent but also control instruction and the district's multibillion-dollar budget -- effectively putting him in charge of all major decisions.

He said the school board could handle other matters such as student discipline and potentially serve as advisors "on some levels." He did not elaborate.

The mayor's comments did not play well with school board members in Los Angeles.

"Maybe he's suffering from a case of jet lag," board member David Tokofsky said. "Is he suggesting that we be reduced to truant officers? It seems to me to be a plan obsessed with power and control."

Another board member, Mike Lansing, said Villaraigosa's proposal would "leave a school board basically in name only."

Board President Marlene Canter was even more blunt: "At the end of the day, this is not just the mayor's decision to make. He doesn't decide on his own the role of the school board."

The tensions spawned by Villaraigosa's takeover plan were little more than a distant echo in New York.

Villaraigosa, who is accustomed to being in the spotlight, assumed the role of pupil as Bloomberg touted what he called the benefits of mayoral oversight: less bureaucracy, engaged students, higher test scores -- statements that his critics challenge.

Bloomberg had only kind words for his fellow mayor, who has made Los Angeles schools one of his top priorities.

"I respect the courage and stamina you have to take on the powerful entrenched interests," said Bloomberg, who stumbled over Villaraigosa's name during their appearance at a Brooklyn elementary school.

"I think the future of our country depends on people like yourself," he said.

Not to be outdone, Villaraigosa praised Bloomberg, saying that he was impressed by a sense of urgency in New York schools that he says is lacking in Los Angeles schools.

"You see a culture of high expectations," he said.

Villaraigosa's vision of L.A. Unified would blend aspects of New York, where a state law gave Bloomberg control of the school district nearly four years ago -- eliminating the elected Board of Education and allowing the mayor to appoint the schools chancellor.

Bloomberg named former federal prosecutor Joel I. Klein as his schools chief. Together, they trimmed the district's mammoth bureaucracy and used the savings to pay for more services such as parent coordinators in schools.

The two also oversaw the introduction of new citywide reading and math programs and eliminated the practice of allowing failing students to advance through the grades.

Supporters said Bloomberg and Klein had brought discipline to a school system once beset by corruption and lethargy. Critics said the two have pushed their top-down agenda at the cost of alienating parents, teachers and administrators, while virtually eliminating public debate about important school district policies.

There also is widespread disagreement about the effectiveness of the reforms: Bloomberg cites rising fourth-grade test scores last year, but his critics say that fourth-graders in cities such as Rochester and Syracuse made more progress and that eighth-graders' scores in New York City slipped.

Villaraigosa saw little bitterness Monday as he and six aides made their way through the crowded streets of New York City in a two-car convoy, followed closely by three television news crews from Los Angeles.

The first stop was breakfast near City Hall with Randi Weingarten, president of the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers. Over eggs and toast, Villaraigosa and Weingarten talked about the importance of collaboration.

Weingarten, an early supporter of Bloomberg's takeover but now a critic, said she left the meeting impressed by what she heard.

"I got a sense that he is learning the lesson about what worked and what didn't work in New York City," she said. "He seems to understand that parents and teachers have a stake in the viability of the school system and kids' education."

Then it was on to a meeting in the financial district with business leaders who have been vocal proponents of mayoral oversight in the schools.

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