Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger handed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a much-anticipated prize Monday, signing a law that will give the mayor substantial control over the Los Angeles public schools.
Appearing together for a bill-signing ceremony at the Los Angeles Central Library, the officials said the change would bring new accountability to a system that fails students, teachers and parents.
"With this bill, the community will gain more control over its schools," Schwarzenegger told the audience packed into the children's reading room. "We will move graduation numbers up. We will move test scores up. And we will move our dropout rate down."
Villaraigosa, who was flanked by more than three dozen ministers, parents and politicians, called the effort to pass the bill the toughest political battle of his career, but added that it was only a beginning.
"Together we are standing up for the idea that we are all accountable for the state of public education in the city of Los Angeles," Villaraigosa said. "We all have a responsibility to lead this historic journey."
The complex law, which takes effect Jan. 1, faces an impending legal challenge from one of its staunchest critics, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The law stops short of the complete takeover that Villaraigosa had sought, instead giving the mayor a dominant position on a new council of mayors that would, in conjunction with the school board, oversee the district budget and hire and fire the superintendent of schools. Villaraigosa also would have direct responsibility over three high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools.
"I'm asking for people to hold me personally accountable for leading improvement in the schools," the mayor said. He urged school board members to drop their challenge. "Accept the will of the people," he said.
His call was echoed by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who shared center stage with the governor and mayor. But district officials said they intended to swiftly move forward with litigation.
"The Constitution of the state of California for 60 years has stated that cities and their officials are not to be in the business of operating public schools," said L.A. Unified General Counsel Kevin Reed.
Joining the district will be the California School Boards Assn. and the Los Angeles administrators union, said officials of those organizations. The lawsuit probably will be filed within the next week, said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the school boards association.
"Notwithstanding all the happy talk coming from the governor and the mayor, it's a bad bill," Plotkin said. "It diffuses accountability. It is a bad precedent."
Even as district officials were moving forward with their legal challenge, school board President Marlene Canter signaled strongly, for the first time, that she was personally willing to include Villaraigosa in the process to replace Supt. Roy Romer, who plans to retire when a successor is found.
Canter disclosed that she met privately with Villaraigosa earlier this month for a "substantive conversation."
"I'd like to be able to roll out the red carpet for the next leader and I'd like to do that with the mayor," Canter said. "I believe and have believed from the beginning that it would be important to have the mayor's input."
On Monday, Villaraigosa stepped up pressure on the district to give him a specific role.
In a letter to Canter, Villaraigosa requested, among other things, that he receive all relevant information about applicants and that his reactions be considered before finalists are determined.
With his request, Villaraigosa is seeking more information than even school board members are privy to during the confidential search and screening process.
Villaraigosa also wants a designee from the council of mayors to participate in the board's interviews with finalists. In addition, he wants a "working group" -- consisting of members of the council of mayors -- to conduct independent interviews.
Only one school board member, Villaraigosa ally Monica Garcia, was present for Monday's library ceremony and the mayor singled her out for praise. Other school board members and Romer were not asked to attend, Canter said. A spokeswoman for the mayor's office insisted that they would have been welcome.
Otherwise, the gathering was a veritable who's who of local politicians, labor leaders and community allies. Half of the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council were present. Also prominent were several African American pastors -- support for the bill has been notably mixed in the black community.
During much of the ceremony, Villaraigosa had his arm around 5-year-old Kaylyn Tulloss, the daughter of one of the ministers and a student at a charter school in Watts. And at one point, the mayor directed reporters to interview one of the guests, a parent, about how another charter school had turned her son's life around.
The charter school boosterism was one of several potentially uncomfortable moments for United Teachers Los Angeles, whose leadership is frequently critical of charters. They also had to watch as the popular Democratic mayor and the Democratic Assembly leader traded praise with the incumbent Republican governor. UTLA has strongly endorsed lagging Democratic gubernatorial challenger Phil Angelides. Nunez praised Schwarzenegger for supporting the bill even before he had seen it.
Later this month, the UTLA leadership faces an internal referendum, initiated by dissidents, on whether to continue supporting the Villaraigosa-backed legislation. UTLA leaders worked hard to pass the bill. "It's after the fact," said union President A.J. Duffy later. "But it's a good opportunity for UTLA to reach out to its members and clear away the veil of misinformation."