Power Politics 101

Los Angeles
April 2006

In L.A. you can get a good sense of a job's symbolic importance by seeing how hot the ethnic politics turn when the post comes open. The last time the Los Angeles Unified School District went looking for a superintendent, tempers flared into name-calling and charges of anti-Latino bias. This time, with Roy Romer preparing to yield the position to the next sucker, the rancor figures to break out again, but the larger story will be written by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's ambition to become the most powerful public education figure in California.

Armed with evidence that bad schools are driving away the middle class and polls that show his popularity is soaring, Villaraigosa has chosen to cast himself in the role of savior. His official job description says nothing about schools: The city doesn't own or operate any. The LAUSD is an independent, octopus-like creation run by a superintendent who reports to a seven-member board of education. The district serves Los Angeles and 27 other cities, from San Fernando to South Gate, whose residents have never voted for Villaraigosa. He dismisses this as a technicality and says that resistance from the school board and his friends in labor-as well as the complicated legal obstacles-are surmountable. Quite simply, Villaraigosa wants the mayor of Los Angeles to control the district.

Villaraigosa is trying to enlarge on the reforms that then-mayor Richard Riordan began in 1999. Riordan handpicked reform candidates, raised money from Eli Broad and other wealthy benefactors, and got his people elected to the board of education. His board majority ousted Superintendent Ruben Zacarias and outraged Zacarias's Eastside supporters, who complained that the mayor thwarted the rise of Latino power. Riordan saw it all as a way to smack the district's moribund bureaucracy out of its stupor and lessen the clout of United Teachers of Los Angeles, the district's most powerful union. Voters eventually rejected Riordan's maneuvering.

Villaraigosa argues that to succeed as mayor he needs to be chief executive not just of city departments but of the schools. Better education is the key to reducing unemployment and poverty and strengthening families, he says. He believes that a superintendent and board of education that ultimately answer to him will be more accountable for student performance. Unlike when he made a mostly-for-show promise to do something about traffic, Villaraigosa is betting his political future on the school takeover cause. Although some consider it a risk, given the district's history of intractability, the mayor and his advisers think that improving the schools is a guarantee he can deliver on.

In his first few months in office Villaraigosa limited himself to rhetorical references to the issue-as if the idea were still gelling. In late January he came back from a Washington gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors pumped up like a football coach preparing for the big game. "If we don't do something about these schools, shame on us," he said at the time. He kept the playbook secret-mostly because it wasn't fully devised yet-but he did chalk out a general strategy. The challenges were daunting: changing state law and the city charter to allow Los Angeles to run schools, treating the other cities fairly, and coming up with a plan for viable improvements. Villaraigosa's friend, assembly speaker Fabian N? will be asked to get the required first steps to transfer legal authority through the state legislature this year. An election to see what the people think could be scheduled as soon as next year.

Beyond that, the details are sketchy. Would the board of education be elected or appointed? Would its members remain part-time-as they are on most city commissions-or would these be full-time political jobs with salaries to match? Would the superintendent report to the mayor and be subject to firing, as are city department heads? If so, would anyone of quality accept the position? The lack of specifics feeds the fear that Villaraigosa, an upwardly mobile Democratic Party player, is engaged in a power grab. The district, with 727,000 students, has a budget that rivals the city's. If a full-time school board owed its jobs to Villaraigosa, it might function as an unofficial training academy for future waves of city council people and assembly members loyal to him.

Villaraigosa has become good at personalizing the cause. He invokes his own rescue from a bad public school experience on the Eastside. "Our schools are failing," he says often. "There is an apathy...and a lack of success that should put a chill down our spine." He has two children in Catholic school, a decision that some see as a cop-out but that also strengthens his voice with parents who have struggled with making the choice to leave the public schools. Villaraigosa argues that he knows what's missing, and it's not just about a shortage of resources-although that's a problem, too.

"It seems to me that if you have high expectations, motivated leadership, and parents who are involved, you can make a difference," he says. "I just don't think right now there is a culture of excellence." Villaraigosa can be a careful parser of language, but on this subject he doesn't shy from bold pronouncements. He predicts a reform movement "this city hasn't seen in a very long time...a very, very serious effort." He has even semi-promised to stick it through to the end, although this is the same politician who vowed while campaigning for the city council in 2003 that he would not run for mayor two years later. "I'm committed to engaging in this effort for the long term," he says. "This issue burns in my soul."

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It's not an original thought, a mayor leading his city's schools. You could, in fact, call it the flavor of the moment in big metro areas. New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston have given their chief executives more power over the school systems since the mid-1990s. Test scores have gone up in some cities, but overall results are mixed. As his favorite case study Villaraigosa points to Chicago-"the best-run city in the United States"-and credits Mayor Richard Daley with urging him to vigorously pursue the issue.

In L.A. the idea of mayoral control was injected into last year's mayor's race by former assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg, who later chaired Villaraigosa's transition team. By the end of the campaign Villaraigosa had picked up the issue and run with it. "He has to do it because he promised he would," says political commentator Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.

Villaraigosa acknowledges that the takeover plan moved to the top of his to-do list after positive reviews of his first six months in office. Getting up at 6 a.m. to banter with radio hosts, staging a press conference somewhere in the city most days, and appearing at every civic banquet in town has paid off. He has the political capital to spend on persuading his friends at United Teachers of Los Angeles to join in and to wrest the necessary changes in state law from the legislature. Says Villaraigosa: "I believe the moment is now."

Thomas Saenz, who was brought in from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to advise Villaraigosa on legal matters, has been occupied for months with the complicated statutory tangles that will have to be unsnarled to allow Los Angeles-a city chartered by the State of California-to take over ownership of a county-authorized school district. You can't just remove duly elected board of education members without trampling someone's rights. Since many of the affected cities have majority minority populations, even the federal Voting Rights Act has to be considered. Villaraigosa could end up proposing a mix of elected and appointed board members when he unveils his plan this spring. "We're still trying to figure it out," the mayor says.

In the meantime Villaraigosa has assigned senior adviser Carolyn Webb de Macias, on leave from her job as USC's vice president for external relations, to function as the city's untitled deputy mayor for education. As onetime chief of staff to former councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, she uses the clout of the mayor's office to seek more money for after-school programs and otherwise makes Villaraigosa appear to have a legitimate role in the schools. Marcus Castain, hired from Eli Broad's foundation to the new position of associate director for education, youth, and families, is planning what reforms Villaraigosa should propose if the takeover succeeds. It will then be the mayor's problem if achievement scores don't rise.

The most intriguing adviser on the team is Sir Michael Barber, who guided restructuring of the British education system under Prime Minister Tony Blair. Barber works for consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which is helping the mayor's office reinvent its management style and strategic planning methods. Barber reportedly delivered persuasive presentations to the mayor's deputies and to Los Angeles business leaders on the need to make educators more accountable for results-- a thought that Villaraigosa has taken to repeating.

Not surprisingly, the district's leaders are troubled by Villaraigosa's attempt to annex them. Romer, as politic as you would expect a former Colorado governor and former chair of the Democratic National Committee to be, has remained publicly neutral. Board of education president Marlene Canter is the designated hitter, debating members of Villaraigosa's staff at civic functions and calling the mayor a meddler who is undermining recent improvements in graduation rates and test scores. Canter says Villaraigosa's rhetoric holds out false hope that there is an easy fix for the social and systemic ills that plague urban schools. The teachers' union also has vowed to fight a takeover, which President A.J. Duffy calls a power play by Villaraigosa that will hurt the schools by adding a new layer of interference.

City Controller Laura Chick is unofficially taking the mayor's side. She offered to audit the LAUSD books, ostensibly to help root out waste. With roomfuls of its own accountants and auditors-and likely with plenty to hide-the district dismissed her offer. Romer bristled and questioned Chick's sincerity, saying she communicated her interest just 30 minutes before a press conference she had scheduled to point out the district's intransigence. Chick kept the pressure on by filing a public records request that demanded Romer turn over recent internal audits. With his own dramatic flourish the superintendent sent over boxes of old audits-delivered by district trucks with a police escort, all orchestrated to guarantee maximum exposure.

Villaraigosa has formed a political action fund-the Mayor's Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability-that is free to raise unrestricted amounts of money from special interests. It's not unlike Riordan's Coalition for Kids, which collected $3 million to help elect school board members. Another comparison has set off warning bells among city politics watchers. L.A. United, the campaign spearheaded by then-mayor James Hahn to defeat Valley secession four years ago, also was exempt from limits on political donations. Those wishing to influence city hall on an assortment of issues poured in money. This led to complaints that the mayor's fund-raisers pressured contributors and prompted a federal grand jury and District Attorney Steve Cooley to investigate allegations that donors desiring to do business at LAX and with the Port of Los Angeles were squeezed into giving to the antisecession campaign. No similar accusations have been leveled at Villaraigosa's effort, but it will be closely monitored.

Villaraigosa caught a break when Romer informed the board of education in February that rather than stay and fight the takeover he was ready to leave before his contract expires in June 2007. Who could blame him? He is 77, needs a cane to get around, and is working beyond his initial four-year commitment. Since his hiring in 2000, Romer has found the money to build or to set in motion plans for 160 schools, including the high school complex that is being erected on the Ambassador Hotel site in Koreatown. "It's a phenomenally tough job that he performed well and leaves with honor," the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote.

When asked if he had played a part in Romer's decision to leave early, Villaraigosa would only admit that he had advance notice. "I think Governor Romer has provided great service to this city," he says diplomatically. (Romer declines to discuss the mayor.) Taking over would be easier without a strong superintendent in place to block his moves. Villaraigosa makes it clear that he wants a voice in choosing Romer's successor. Allies such as Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a former school board member, and Bob Hertzberg have been mentioned as candidates. So far Villaraigosa isn't saying whom he favors, just that the person should be a "change agent." There's another quality that he would like the new superintendent to possess: a willingness to accept that the mayor of Los Angeles is in charge.

Even with a partner in the superintendent's office, Villaraigosa would have to sell the public on the idea that imposing another layer of government on the schools would pay off in the classroom. Should he win that fight, he would be judged on whether students start to do significantly better. This would be a rigorous test, one fraught with hazards for his political future. No matter what happens, Villaraigosa deserves credit for using his popularity to assume such an ambitious burden in his first year.

©Kevin Roderick 2006