Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mendoza v. California, Act 1.1: The Daily News

LAUSD PLAN GOES TO COURT: Legality of mayor's plan to take over part of school district is questioned.

By Naush Boghossian, Staff writer, Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Daily News)

Dec. 16, 2006 - Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's hard-fought effort to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District culminated Friday in a three-hour courtroom showdown, with attorneys debating the legality of the law that will determine who controls the nation's second-largest school district.

Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs said she hoped to rule by Thursday on the legal challenge to Assembly Bill 1381, which gives Villaraigosa responsibility for three school "clusters" and a 28-member council of mayors authority over the rest. It also grants local educators greater authority in operating their own campuses.

Even as lawyers debated the validity of the complex law, Janavs questioned whether some of its provisions should be overturned.

"I do want to hear both sides ... in case I decide at least part of this is unconstitutional," she said. "It's very clear this was a compromise measure. I don't know how you can avoid that.

"How do I figure out which was quid pro quo for what?"

Thomas Saenz, the mayor's chief counsel, said that invalidating Villaraigosa's ability to take over the low-performing schools would gut the mayor's hard-fought reform effort.

"This is intended as a package designed to increase accountability and community involvement in education and thereby improve the schools and those are significant parts of the package," he said. "But that said, every piece of the package is important and we think that every piece of the package would lead to some incremental improvement."

LAUSD's chief attorney, Kevin S. Reed, argued that AB1371 was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor even though the state's legislative counsel had concluded the bill was unconstitutional.

After the hearing, Reed told reporters he was pleased by the thorough nature of Janavs' questions.

"What we wanted was our day in court and we absolutely got our day in court," Reed said. "I think she wanted to hear all the issues."

Fred Woocher, Reed's co-counsel, said Janavs was obviously aware that political compromises had been made to get the bill approved.

"I think she was very astute in recognizing how much of a political compromise the passage of this bill was," he said. "In the context in which this bill was crafted and all the dealmaking that went on, it really is difficult to believe if any piece of it were taken away that it would have gotten sufficient votes to pass."

Villaraigosa released a statement saying he believed his reform bill will remain intact.

"I believe the courts will rule AB1381 to be constitutional, which will allow us all to move past the lawsuit and begin implementing the reforms," he said.

The lawsuit was filed in October by a LAUSD-led coalition which claimed AB1381 violates the state Constitution, which mandates a separation between a city governments and its education system.

The suit also claims the bill violates the Los Angeles City Charter, which sets forth the duties of the mayor, but does not grant him authority over public schools.

Additionally, the suit alleges the bill disenfranchises voters who are served by Los Angeles Unified but don't live in Los Angeles.

School board member David Tokofsky sat through most of the arguments, which he said offered more debate about the law than during the legislative process.

He expressed concern about a ruling that would invalidate only portions of the law.

"On the surface it seems to make a convoluted law simpler, but it will make the administration of schools less understandable and clear to moms and dads trying to understand the system.

"Depending on which way they did it, it would be a significant addition to the breakup discussion."

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