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Who's In Charge In LA?

A battle for control between the school board and mayor goes to court

It's up to California's state courts to settle a bitter tug of war between the mayor and school board of Los Angeles over who will run the city's public schools.

Unless a court rules otherwise, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will assume substantial control of the schools on January 1 under a bill he pushed through the state legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in September, calling it "a great day for children."

But it wasn't a great day for most board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who vowed even before the measure was enacted to challenge it on the grounds that it violates the California state constitution.

The challenge was launched formally October 10, when a coalition led by the school district filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Partners in the litigation include the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, the California School Boards Association, the school district's two PTA groups, the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, representing the district's school administrators, and several parents.

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he would cut bureaucracy, invest more money in the classrooms, create "a culture of innovation," support charter schools and "do something to improve achievement and lower the dropout rate."

Although they did not join the lawsuit, rank-and-file members of the powerful Los Angeles teachers union voted to back the school board, bucking their own union leaders who sided with the mayor.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the politically tinged brouhaha, the board hired in October a new superintendent, retired Navy admiral David L. Brewer III, to succeed Roy Romer, who is retiring after six years at the helm of the country's second largest school district.

Even the search was swept into the dispute over control, with Villaraigosa charging that he was kept out of the process of suggesting and reviewing candidates. Villaraigosa was away on a trade mission to Asia when the LAUSD announced its selection. But under the new law, he would have considerably more influence in future hiring and firing decisions.

In statements his office issued in his absence, Villaraigosa stated he still was "deeply disappointed" in the selection process but had invited Brewer to meet as soon as he returned home.

The Mayor's Unconstitutional Move?

Villaraigosa, a former leader of the California Assembly and seen by some as a potential Democratic candidate for governor, kicked off an all-out campaign at the start of 2006 to wrest control of the schools from the school board, arguing that the system was failing its 727,000 students.

He said that if he was in charge, he would cut bureaucracy, invest more money in the classrooms, create "a culture of innovation," support charter schools and "do something to improve achievement and lower the dropout rate."

Villaraigosa pursued his objective through the state legislature, with a bill-AB 1381, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles)-that called for a change in the governance structure of the school system as a foundation for fundamental reform.

Leading Los Angeles business groups, religious leaders, community organizations, other elected local leaders and the governing board of the teachers union quickly endorsed the legislation. But even as the measure moved through the California capitol with little difficulty, caution flags were being raised over its legality. The state's nonpartisan legislative counsel, Diane F. Boyer-Vine, said in August that it probably was unconstitutional.

The key provision of the California constitution states "No school or college or any other part of the public school system shall be, directly or indirectly, transferred from the public school system or placed under the jurisdiction of any authority other than one included within the public school system."

Nevertheless, the legislature passed the bill in August with bipartisan support, and Schwarzenegger signed it. "Today we are proclaiming a victory for the students of LAUSD and their parents," he said at the time. "With this bill, schools with the biggest problems can get the most attention and direct oversight by the mayor, so he can focus on what counts-moving test scores up and dropout rates down."

LAUSD Board President Marlene Canter opposes the new law but looks forward to "moving beyond this discussion and working together with the mayor."

Essentially, the new law gives the mayor veto power over the hiring and firing of future superintendents through a new council that would be comprised of mayors of the 26 other cities in the LAUSD. The council also would have oversight over other functions, including budget review and campus safety efforts.

Further, the mayor would gain direct authority over three low-performing high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools-potentially 40 schools altogether.

The superintendent, meanwhile, would gain more authority over a number of functions previously controlled by the board, such as personnel, business operations and budgeting. Villaraigosa sees this move as providing a centralized point of accountability.

The signing ceremony was emblematic of the political intrigue swirling around the school control issue. Schwarzenegger, a Republican who was running for reelection and was courting Latino voters, was a strong backer of Villaraigosa, who had endorsed Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent. Villaraigosa himself is seen as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2010.

In a statement following the signing, LAUSD Board President Marlene Canter said although she strongly opposed the new law, she looked forward to "moving beyond this discussion and working together with the mayor." She said she hoped for a quick resolution of the constitutional questions.

But those questions became murkier because the legislature framed the future new council of mayors as a "local educational agency" that would be part of the public school system itself, which would seem to make it constitutional.

Like New York and Chicago

Whatever the ultimate outcome in Los Angeles, the move for mayoral control of the schools follows earlier similar takeovers in New York and Chicago, where mayors Michael Bloomberg and Richard Daley, respectively, have cited improved accountability and school performance.

They both backed Villaraigosa's move. Shifting authority to their offices has allowed for "fundamental changes that are breathing new life into our public schools," they said in a joint statement in early August. "We have brought back standards, empowered principals, improved safety and created innovative programs to support struggling students and schools."

With control in their hands, they also were able to "allocate resources far more efficiently and effectively, shifting money out of the central bureaucracy and into the classroom," Bloomberg and Daley said.

Unlike New York and Chicago, however, the new law in California does not give the Los Angeles mayor total authority over the schools. The school board will maintain limited control, and the new mayors' council will be able to weigh in on key issues. But as leader of the largest city in the district, the Los Angeles mayor is expected to dominate the council's decisions on issues like hiring or firing school superintendents.

A key problem, as Canter sees it, is that the superintendent will report to both the school board and the mayor, which "blurs accountability and diminishes transparency." One result, says Canter, is that the superintendent "will have a huge responsibility to allocate $19 billion worth of contracts and $17.5 billion worth of general fund money without the purview of the public or the board."

Meanwhile, in New York, where the law giving him temporary control four years ago is slated to expire in 2009, Bloomberg has already launched an aggressive campaign to make it permanent. In September, he visited Los Angeles and joined Canter, Romer and other local officials in launching a new school safety initiative. And earlier in the year, Villaraigosa traveled to New York to learn what Bloomberg had done to reduce crime in schools there.

Countdown to January

In California, lawyers were gearing up for the court battle over the basic constitutional issue of whether the mayor can assume control of the schools. While the state attorney general's office prepared to defend the law, Villaraigosa reportedly was hiring his own lawyer as well.

Canter says that legalities aside, turning school control over to the mayor is wrong for another reason. "School board members are the only local officials whose job is solely to represent the children and the schools. We focus on those issues 100 percent of the time," while the mayor's job responsibilities are "much broader," Canter says.

While there is a "nexus" where the board and the mayor meet, "I do not feel that in order for education or achievement to accelerate, the mayor has to take over. In fact, I believe it will dilute education because it will become one of many things he is responsible for," Canter declares.

But that argument takes a back seat to the constitutional issue for now. In its suit, the school board sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the law from taking effect as scheduled on January 1. Control will shift to the mayor on New Year's Day unless the Superior Court leaves authority with the board, at least temporarily. But the case probably will go all the way to the California Supreme Court for a final ruling in the months ahead.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing editor.