Monday, April 02, 2007

First impressions from the appeals court on LAUSD v. Villaraigosa ...and musings from the peanut gallery


The Associated Press – from the San Jose Mercury News website

April 2, 2007 - 4:13:35 PM PDT - LOS ANGELES- A panel of appellate judges on Monday questioned attorneys about a law that was designed to give Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa partial authority over the nation's second-largest school district but was ruled unconstitutional by a lower court.

Justices from the 2nd District Court of Appeal questioned the law's impact on the rights of voters and asked whether the mayor had explored other options for creating change in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Attorneys for Villaraigosa and a group called the Los Angeles Parents Union attempted to convince the justices to overturn the lower court's ruling.

Justice Joan Dempsey Klein noted the legislation, AB 1381, was scheduled to expire in six years. It would shift some powers from the elected seven-member school board to the mayor and a new council of more than two dozen other mayors of cities within LAUSD boundaries. It would also give Villaraigosa control of the district's 36 worst-performing schools.

"There are only 'X' number of years to this scheme and then it's all over," Klein said. "Does that coincide with the two terms of the mayor?"

Fredric D. Woocher, one of the attorneys representing the school district, argued that the Office of Legislative Counsel had twice concluded the bill was unconstitutional. He said the state Legislature "can't just declare the mayor part of the public school system."

Klein asked attorneys for Villaraigosa to tell her "about the right of the people to have a voice with the mayor sitting on top of the heap."

Daniel Collins, an attorney for the mayor, said that the votes of the people were not being "diluted." Rather, the bill establishes a re-delegation of duties, he said.

Deputy Attorney General Susan K. Leach, representing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, argued that school board members would still have significant powers under the law.

After Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law, the school district, along with a coalition of district parents, students, administrators and the League of Women voters filed suit Oct. 10. The law had been scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1 but Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs found it unconstitutional in December.

The mayor initially sought to bypass the 2nd District Court of Appeal but the California Supreme Court refused to immediately review Janavs' decision.

The appeals court will likely decide the case within 30 days, according to attorneys.

All of this, including the reporting above, are first impressions – so here are mine:

· ...."and a group called the Los Angeles Parents Union"? AKA a consortium of charter schools? I really like that part!

· The Mayors team did a much better job of presenting than they did in the trail court; as appellants the burden of proof is on them.

· That being said the justices asked very pointed questions and it didn’t seem that they were necessarily buying any of the answers from the mayor’s side.

· The quote from Justice Klein above was the morning’s comedy moment, but it was telling. Her question, beyond the glib, was whether the short timeframe allowed in AB 1381 [Romero] (it sunsets in 2013) is enough time to accomplish much at all?

· In the trial court the question was whether Jiffy Lube could beer empowered to run an educational program under the legislature’s claimed prerogative – this time the hypothetical worst case was the Department of Transportation.

· One of the justices, unprompted, actually opined that LAUSD is doing well and pointed to improvement and growth in test scores – saying that LAUSD is outperforming other urban school districts. He did this to reinforce that the district “is not failing” and that there was no evidence or legislative intent established that AB1381 was punitive. The mayor’s team was forced to agree, even though AB1381 is a rework of SB767 [Romero] which did attempt to define LAUSD as a failure!

· Much of the questioning revolved around whether the Council of Mayors and governance structure created was “part of the public school system” …or something else.

· Much was made of the legislative intent of Prop 3 in 1946 – the PTA sponsored initiative constitutional amendment that – among other things - prohibits municipal government from interfering in local school districts. The appellants claimed that this was done to bar undue interference in the state college system and further claimed that it was meant to strengthen legislative and not local school board control. As I have no law degree I did not jump up and shout “balderdash!” – but I thought it real hard!

· Other arguments were made as whether AB1381 unconstitutionally meddled in the government of a charter city in that it assigned power reserved to the chartered board of education to the mayor and a council of mayors from outside the charter’s jurisdiction.

· As the discussion focused on the fine points of legislative intent, the role of the legislative counsel and case law there were a few moments when the distinction between “charter cities” and “charter schools” blurred into a haze of legalspeak.

· Ultimately the justices will decide the appeal on the fine points of the law – the discussion was always an intellectual discussion of the intent and meaning of the law within the framework of the state constitution and the city charter, never about policy.

From the direction and tone of the questions I believe that the court will decide for the District.

I mean no criticism of the court; one needs to remember the correct role of the court as an arbiter of law. At one point Justice Klein asked the respondents to discuss the difference between mayoral control of schools in NYC and what AB1381 proposes for LA. You could’ve heard a pin drop as the well prepared attorneys scrambled away from going there!

Unfortunately at no time in the proceedings was the best interest of children discussed or weighed. That was the job of the legislature, and at that they failed. - smf

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