June 2, 2006 - As the state announced Thursday that 14 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District's Class of 2006 had failed the mandatory exit exam and will not graduate this month, Superintendent Roy Romer unveiled a $36 million program to overhaul some of the district's lowest-performing high schools.

While Romer's plan has been in the works since September, its release coincides with district efforts to fend off a takeover by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has blasted LAUSD for its high dropout rate and spotty test scores. It would include hiring teachers and counselors and renovating facilities at 17 Los Angeles high schools, none of them in the San Fernando Valley.

"There's a myth out there that we're not doing anything, (a myth) that the mayor sometimes contributes to. We're doing a good deal and we're going to do a good deal more, and that's showing in our scores," Romer said in an interview. "It's a program to jump-start the reform of these schools. ... We have to improve the academic performance of these schools. We want them to graduate and to complete the A-G (mandatory college preparatory) curriculum."

The high school program would be funded with state grants and revenue from taxpayer-approved bonds, Romer said. It still must be approved by the LAUSD board.

Romer rejected suggestions that the announcement of the program is the latest salvo in his battle against Villaraigosa for control of the district.

"This is not in response to any current activity on anybody's part," he said.

But a spokeswoman for the mayor credited Villaraigosa with spurring Romer to act.

"This is a positive sign from the school district and a clear reflection of Mayor Villaraigosa's leadership role in the school reform debate," aide Janelle Erickson said.

The reform proposal was announced the day the state released the results of the final exit exam for the 2005-06 school year, revealing that 86 percent of the seniors in LAUSD and more than 90 percent statewide passed both portions of the test.

A total of 25,779 LAUSD seniors have passed the test, a 4 percent increase from February, officials said. That leaves 2,564 who still must pass the exam, which tests math skills up to Algebra I and English concepts through the 10th grade.

To receive a high school diploma, those students will have to attend summer school and pass the exam when it's next administered in July, officials said.

Also, 664 disabled students are eligible to receive their diplomas based on an exemption, technically raising the district's pass rate to 88 percent.

Nearly two-thirds of those who still failed are Latino. Blacks, students from poor families and English-learners still lag behind their white counterparts, state Schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell said at a news conference at John Burroughs High School in Burbank. "There is an achievement gap in California. We know that; we admit that," O'Connell said. "I welcome the focus, the sunshine and the dialogue that we need to have on the achievement gap."

The updated figures include results from March. More students took the exit exam again in May, but those results won't be available until July - after public schools hold their graduation ceremonies this spring.

LAUSD students who completed other requirements for graduation but failed to pass the exit exam will be allowed to participate in commencement, but will receive a certificate of completion rather than a diploma, officials said. In announcing his plan, Romer said the improvements are designed to help high school students get the skills they need to earn their diplomas.

"Every one of these kids we are able to get to will be better-equipped to pass the exit exam and to reduce the dropout rate," he said.

The plan would allocate $16 million to hire more teachers and counselors to decrease class size and improve the quality of instruction. Some $10 million in bond revenue would be spent to upgrade science labs, improve libraries and make other renovations, and another $10 million would be spent to replace aging furniture and make other capital improvements. The amount allocated to each school would be based on enrollment and the level of need, Romer said.

The idea is to get a head start on reform efforts Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed to launch during the 2007-08 school year as part of the state's effort to repay $2.9 billion borrowed from California's public schools to help solve the budget crisis. "It's important to see this as accelerating by one year the owed money by the state," school board member David Tokofsky said. "This is akin to sending Band-Aids to Baghdad.."

The new program is designed to help Banning, Belmont, Bell, Crenshaw, Dorsey, Fremont, Garfield, Huntington Park, Jefferson, Jordan, Locke, Los Angeles, Manual Arts, Roosevelt, Santee, Washington Prep and Wilson High schools. Dorsey High Principal George Bartleson said the money will make a big difference at his school.

"I'm concerned right now about funding for staff, and this will provide money for additional counselors, lowering class size and improving facilities," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.