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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Actors in L.A. Unified Drama Veer Toward Comedy of the Absurd

October 09, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Someone should write lyrics for the melancholy operetta that's been unfolding as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attempts to wrest control of Los Angeles' public schools from the district's entrenched Board of Education.

Call it "Middle School Musical." There isn't enough maturity on display to put "High School" in the title.

At a news conference Thursday, Marlene Canter, the board's usually smart and effective president, gave every indication that she and her six colleagues may hurriedly name a new superintendent, in secret if possible, while the mayor is off junketing around Asia.

In a musical, this is where a diverse throng of sad-eyed singing children would enter stage right, imploring everyone to drop the politics and put the students first. The board would then respond reasonably by naming an interim superintendent until the mayor either steps into his new role or the courts hash it out.

The impetus for radical change in the Los Angeles Unified School District has been simmering at least since the 1960s and finally hit critical mass around the millennium. Interim Supt. Ramon Cortines -- now Villaraigosa's education czar and shuttle diplomat to the district -- got the revolution rolling. Roy Romer, now the lame-duck schools chief, stepped in after him and began bulldozing the status quo with his standardized curriculum and campus building crusade.

Enter Villaraigosa. A product of L.A. Unified, the mayor no doubt saw the progress, but also political advantage in pointing out the obvious: Young lives are wasting; someone needs to step in and strap rockets to the reform.

Romer, the politically savvy former governor of Colorado, would have been a perfect ally. But the mayor blew his chance to charm Romer into a conspiracy for change. Instead, he disrespected the district while pushing for control.

Last week, in an insightful profile of the departing supe, Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg noted that Romer felt compelled to dig in his heels and defend the board -- even though its members have tried his patience from the get-go. And so the two people who could have done the most to improve the schools quickly wound up in a standoff.

Amid the acrimony, the board has sunk ever deeper into denial about the watershed power shift at hand. Sure, there's a chance the courts will strike down the bill that would give more clout to the mayor. But that would hardly turn back the revolution. Four board seats are up for grabs in the spring, and the mayor and his allies will certainly try to yank the chairs out from under any board member who hasn't endorsed Villaraigosa's grandstanding for better schools.

Perhaps only Monica Garcia, the newest member and a solid Friend of Antonio, fully grasps that the board's job now is to "reinvent public education" and that doing so will require vastly more collaboration from everyone.

Sadly, the old board, all too comfortable with its old ways, has decided to anoint the next superintendent behind closed doors. Canter, not the least bit happy that Times staff writers Joel Rubin and Howard Blume identified three of the board's finalists, has taken to scolding that the education establishment's "best practices" dictate that candidates be mollycoddled by keeping their names hush-hush -- from the mayor as well as the public that pays for the whole show.

Of course, the mayor and his supporters deserve to be laughed off the stage for insisting that the board's resistance ignores "the will of the people." The convoluted Educational Reform Act of 2006, after all, was slapped together in back rooms by politicians and vested interests.

But the mayor does seem intent on atoning for this sin by demanding transparency from the board as it selects the district's new leader. Not that openness should mean, as some in Villaraigosa's camp seem to think, that every conceivable constituency is entitled to a hands-on role in deciding who runs the schools.

It would seem rather important, however, to know sooner rather than later if a candidate is going to wilt when this cantankerous city cuts loose with the inevitable catcalls. The board's job should be to pick through the survivors for the strongest, most honest leader, regardless of arm twisting by ethnic interests or the town's shadow elites.

Canter is no fool. With luck, she'll persuade her board to put off hiring a new superintendent until the mayor has offered his take on the finalists and the public has had a chance to chime in. If that means appointing an interim superintendent until the legal head-butting is over -- what an adult compromise that would be.

Meanwhile, any candidate offered the job had better have the maturity to say: Hold it a minute. To take on this already impossible assignment before being introduced to the public and without the mayor's support would turn a power player's comedy of errors into a disharmonious farce.


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