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Mayor gets closer to deal on a role in schools

Villaraigosa hopes new board majority will be open to alliance, but details are under wraps.

July 03, 2007|Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and top officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District expect to announce a new alliance this month that would give the mayor a role in running a cluster of campuses, most likely around Roosevelt High School.

The emerging partnership between these onetime adversaries comes as a new school board majority allied with Villaraigosa takes office today. At least four of the seven school board members, who were elected with the mayor's backing, are sympathetic to his desire to have an instrumental role in the schools.

But some key obstacles could still thwart the mayor's ambitions: He must win the approval of teachers and community leaders who want a say in the oversight of their schools and who feel betrayed in some cases by what they believe have been broken promises of reform in the past.

The president of United Teachers Los Angeles, for example, said any discussion about changing the union's contract to clear the way for a partnership would be premature until teachers are guaranteed a prominent voice.

"I'm not going to talk about any type of new contract until I have a better understanding from the district and the mayor about what roles they expect teachers will play in decision making," said union President A.J. Duffy.

In a nod to the influential union, the plan under negotiation would give the faculty at individual schools the right to veto participation in the partnership expected to begin in the fall of 2008, according to officials at the school district and City Hall.

Some community leaders, meanwhile, say they welcome the mayor's overtures as long as he refrains from issuing top-down orders.

"The idea of any reform is that it has to build off the community's voice," said Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a Boyle Heights group that has been involved in education for several years. "We will be open to any collaboration that supports this grass-roots effort."

Aside from Roosevelt, Crenshaw High School is also under consideration.

Eunice Grigsby, a member of the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition, a group of Crenshaw High School parents, teachers and students, said: "We are the moving force. We are not partnering with somebody and saying, 'You do what you want to do.' We want reform and we have ideas already. It's about what can they add to the pie."

In interviews, Villaraigosa and his top education advisor gave conflicting signals about the approach they intend to take.

Villaraigosa said he expects to have "an expansive operational authority over these schools." His senior education advisor, however, sought to downplay the notion that City Hall will dominate the new reform. Instead, Deputy Mayor Ramon C. Cortines insisted that the mayor's team will share responsibility with the district and community groups.

Cortines said the mayor's office will only seek involvement in schools that request their help. So far, the communities around Roosevelt and Crenshaw are the only ones that have expressed interest.

"We're no longer talking about running a cluster of schools. We're talking about partnering with the district," Cortines said. "That means we are actually partners and it doesn't mean they will give us these schools and say, 'Go, do your thing.' "

Both sides have been closely guarding the details of their negotiations for fear it will appear as if they are making decisions without input from the community and teachers. The mayor's advisors, in particular, have been so concerned about details of the plan leaking out that, district officials say, they are required to return copies of drafts at the end of meetings.

The calls for partnership have been driven by a changing of the guard on the seven-member Board of Education.

Three candidates backed by Villaraigosa won in last spring's school board elections. The new arrivals -- Tamar Galatzan, Richard Vladovic and Yolie Flores Aguilar -- join Monica Garcia, a close ally of the mayor who is expected to be chosen by the board today as its next president.

As a result of these changes, officials from the Villaraigosa administration and L.A. Unified have been working behind the scenes to smooth over frayed relationships in the aftermath of an ugly legal battle for control of the school system.

The fight ended when two state courts threw out as unconstitutional a state law that would have handed Villaraigosa substantial control over the school system.

Garcia has publicly voiced her interest in the mayor becoming involved in the Eastside area she represents, which includes Boyle Heights. And like other district officials, she emphasized that community feedback would be central to any new educational blueprint.

"Do I understand that he wants to be directly involved with schools? Yes, I get that," she said. "And yes, I support that."

All three new board members said they also welcome the mayor's involvement.

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