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Fresno's Mayor Doesn't Get the Villaraigosa Treatment on His School Plan, and He's Irate

September 06, 2006|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Two big-city mayors went to Sacramento last week, looking for much the same thing.

One went home jubilant; the other defeated, angry.

What happened was an illustration of the zero-sum maneuvering that often plays out at the end of a legislative session, when reputations are at stake and complex public policy rises and falls on impermanent coalitions of harried politicians.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got a lot of what he wanted: a greater stake in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Fresno Mayor Alan Autry got nothing: His attempt to impose more accountability on his city's struggling schools slipped away.

Autry is furious. He feels betrayed by two Los Angeles politicians -- Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) -- who were intent on passing their own education bill and, he said, advancing their own career prospects.

Autry wants to confront both men about what happened but says he has been ignored.

"Up in Sacramento, you have some good people trying to do the best they can," said Autry, a former actor who played police officer "Bubba Skinner" in the TV series "In the Heat of the Night." "But there are more gutless, bought-off cowards per square inch congregated in one place than I've ever seen."

Sacramento doesn't see it that way. A Nunez spokesman, Steve Maviglio, said Autry called only once. And he never demonstrated that he had lined up sufficient local support, Maviglio said.

Autry, a Republican, said he wasn't looking for much -- just a statement tacked onto the Los Angeles bill that the Legislature next year would address Fresno's struggling schools. At Fresno Unified School District, fourth largest in the state, only 29% of students are proficient in English; 28% in math.

Autry is pushing a plan that would empower the elected county school superintendent to step in and exert authority over Fresno schools, not just when they are in financial trouble but also when they are failing academically.

At first it seemed Autry might get his way.

The L.A. Unified bill was at one point in jeopardy. Central Valley votes were deemed important for passage, and that was good news for Autry. It meant there was room for some horse-trading.

Negotiations took place between Villaraigosa's office and Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Salinas), briefly considered a swing vote. Denham said he asked the Los Angeles forces to include wording that mentioned Fresno.

"The mayor [Villaraigosa] brought up that L.A. is very different from Fresno," Denham said. "But all I wanted was language saying we're going to address this next year for the city of Fresno. At no point did we have an agreement, but we were working toward resolution."

Supporters of the bill weren't talking just to Denham, though, and managed to round up enough votes without him.


Autry realized he was in trouble when, in the run-up to the Aug. 29 vote, he couldn't reach the main people behind the bill.

The weekend prior, he tried to get in touch with Villaraigosa. None of his calls was returned, he said. The mayor of California's sixth-largest city said he had no luck reaching Nunez either.

Maviglio said the Fresno mayor had done little of the preparatory work to get what he wanted.

"Notwithstanding the mayor's black helicopter theory, when he's able to bring the coalition of parents, community leaders, civil rights leaders and teachers to the table the way Mayor Villaraigosa did, then we can begin to talk," Maviglio said. "But we're not interested in Bubba's one-man show."

Why not accommodate Fresno?

"You simply can't fill-in-a-blank of a city and add it to the proposal the mayor [Villaraigosa] brought forward," Maviglio said. "It was very specific to L.A. and very broadly supported, and we've seen none of that from Fresno."

In frustration, Autry sent a letter to Villaraigosa on Aug. 28, the day before the L.A. bill passed.

"Since we don't have the political capability for intimidation here in the [San Joaquin] Valley that you and Speaker Nunez wield at the state level, I guess all I can say is shame on you, brother," Autry wrote. "It has become painfully obvious to me that you do not feel that the kids in Fresno are of equal value to the kids in L.A. I think they're all equally important and precious to this state."

Last week, Villaraigosa's office issued a statement suggesting there was no place for Fresno in a school bill whose focus was Los Angeles.

"The mayors traded phone calls but unfortunately were not able to speak," Villaraigosa press secretary Janelle Erickson said.

"Mayor Villaraigosa has always made it clear that his education reform efforts were focused on the students and parents of the Los Angeles school district."

There seems to be little consensus in Fresno that Autry's plans were the elixir the schools need.

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