Antonio: Dream and Reality

23 June 2006 |permalink | email article

Antonio Villaraigosa didn’t declare his intention to gain control of the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District until April 17, 2005, well into his runoff campaign against incumbent James Hahn. He said the mayor should have “ultimate control and oversight over the district,” adding “what we have now is not working.”

The former Democratic Assembly Speaker’s bullish rhetoric softened recently when he began saying his proposed legislation was not about mayoral control but instead about public accountability.

That he stayed in Sacramento overnight this week and vowed not to leave until he got a deal suggests that in trying to emulate absolute mayoral control in New York and Chicago he badly miscalculated.

Only after tough negotiations with two powerful teachers unions that have long been longtime political allies was Villaraigosa able to reach a compromise and snatch partial victory, short of total control, from the jaws of defeat.

Instead of being responsible for schools, the mayor would share power with the superintendent, the school board and a council of smaller city mayors.

Under a bill, with many details still unclear, Villaraigosa would gain veto power over the selection of a superintendent. That official would get broader operational and contracting control, but the board would still set policy.

And the unions would get what they couldn’t get from recent contract negotiations: greater control by teachers over instructional methods.

But board members, kept in the dark about the mayor’s Wednesday compromise with the unions, were not amused. LAUSD’s top lawyer said he and other officials are discussing possible lawsuits.

“I didn’t run to be king of Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said, downplaying his fast-tracked power grab. “I want to be mayor and a consensus builder.”

But the L.A. Times and Daily News editorial boards were harshly critical.

Discussing the mayor’s pledge to take over L.A. schools, the Times opined that “what he’s getting is something less dramatic – and less helpful.”

“But what he calls a grand compromise to bring greater accountability to the city’s schools is better described as an ill-advised plan that cedes too much to the teachers unions, offers too little to students and relies too much on the mayor’s talent for consensus.”

The Daily News said that the mayor cut a political deal but left critical questions unanswered. “First and foremost: Where’s the accountability?” 

The editorial also noted that with the governor and leader of both the state Senate and Assembly all aboard the deal, another concern is raised. “What’s needed is an open and lively public conversation about our schools and what’s best for the kids - not behind the scenes political manipulation.”

The popular Villaraigosa’s charisma and passion is not in dispute. Rather, after all the political theater, accountability remains the issue. On the eve of his first year in office, there is a concern among many supporters that he has spread himself too thin, made too many promises he cannot keep and appeared too anxious to put his future state and national political ambitions first.

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