Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mayor's Schools Battle Appears Puzzling, Risky

George Skelton, Capitol Journal | LA Times

August 17, 2006 - Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's legislation to gain some power over Los Angeles schools always has puzzled me, and I've got at least three questions.

• Why is this a piece of legislation anyway? Why aren't L.A. voters deciding how their schools should be run, rather than Sacramento politicians?

• How does Villaraigosa getting involved help the schools — especially now that the legislation has been negotiated to the point where the mayor represents just another layer of authority? How does diffusing power increase accountability?

• Politically, what's the guy thinking? Not only has this ambitious politician been making enemies in his first major endeavor as mayor, he's setting himself up for potential failure about the time he runs for reelection in three years.

The bill nearing Senate passage is as complicated as one of those paella recipes. But these are some highlights:

It would require selection of the L.A. schools superintendent to be ratified by a new council of mayors, consisting of L.A.'s and the other 26 cities' within the huge district. Because of L.A.'s size — and the way the bill is written — Villaraigosa could ratify the superintendent by himself. But he would need some votes of other mayors to veto the school board's choice.

The council of mayors — with L.A.'s exercising by far the loudest voice — also could advise on superintendent recruiting, district budgeting and school building sites. But the superintendent would get more control over the budget and school sites, taking present power from the board.

Perhaps most important for Villaraigosa, he himself could take over three low-performing high schools and all their elementary and middle feeder schools, perhaps 40 in all. That's a big risk. Since when did Villaraigosa become an expert at education reform?

Villaraigosa was in the Capitol on Monday — lobbying legislators, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee and pushing his cause on TV.

I caught up with him in a vacant 1800s-era committee room. It was midafternoon, and he was digging into a carton of chicken-and-vegetable takeout from the basement cafeteria. "Ah, this is perfect," he told a staffer. "This has got a little protein."

I asked my questions.

Why not let citizens of the L.A. Unified School District vote on this? Why go around them to Sacramento?

"Look, these matters come before the Legislature all the time," the former Assembly speaker began, not convincingly.

Then he added: "We can't wait for a plebiscite. We need reform now."

But Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), a coauthor of the bill, conceded to the Senate committee: "We didn't want to get this caught up in a political campaign."

They could very well lose. Private polling, according to one district source, shows that voters are split evenly on the issue.

The Capitol is much easier pickings. The bill is a virtual lock for passage.

Villaraigosa has many allies here, especially Nuñez and the other coauthor, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). The scenario many pols envision is Villaraigosa getting elected governor in 2010, followed by Nuñez succeeding his friend as mayor. That enhances Villaraigosa's clout.

So do the endorsements for the mayor's bill by the L.A. City Council and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce — and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's promise to sign the measure before it even had been written.

"What you don't know," Schwarzenegger told me, "is that Antonio and I meet regularly…. So I have had long conversations with him about what he wants to do about education, how he wants to take over the school system. So it's not like I would say, blindly, 'Whatever it is,' because I know of his plan.

"That's why I say I'm for it. Then it's up to him what he wants to negotiate."

Schwarzenegger also must be impressed by the fact that Democrat Villaraigosa has not endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor, Treasurer Phil Angelides.

Villaraigosa said he'll endorse Angelides after his school bill passes. Why wait? "Because this is my priority."

And how does his getting involved help schools?

By using his "bully pulpit" and putting a "spotlight" on schools, he said, adding that "a mayor has the ability to marshal resources that a school board doesn't — private and public."

What would he do with the money? "We're looking at longer school days, Saturday schools, charters…."

But wouldn't there be too many cooks — the board, the superintendent, the mayor?

"It's a partnership," the mayor insisted. "Right now, you have seven school board members going like this" — he points in different directions. "They micromanage the school system [and] have refused to engage in the reforms that we need."

This, of course, is vehemently disputed by outgoing Supt. Roy Romer, who points to undeniable progress in reading and math test scores and a historically huge school-building program.

Just not fast enough, Villaraigosa contends.

But what if he can't improve things any faster? Won't he pay the political price?

He dismisses the idea: "I'm going to use the bully pulpit to make this work. I got elected because people are looking for bold leadership. I didn't get elected to watch."

Villaraigosa won't say so publicly, but he'll probably get heavily involved in next year's school board elections — a la former Mayor Richard Riordan — in an effort to stack the board with allies. Then he'd have more than a "bully pulpit." He'd have a friendly board.

More immediately, however, the mayor and his Capitol allies should make sure that they're not cutting a deal just for a deal's sake. Politicians love deals. But they're only momentary victories.

Over time, a deal can propel or pummel a politician. This deal likely will do one or the other to Villaraigosa.

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