Monday, July 18, 2005

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: The Politics Of Patronage

Recently crowned inaugurated mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa is continuing his efforts to achieve his stated desire of overthrowing Los Angeles's elected school board in favor of a scheme whereby he would appoint the governing board of the nation's second-largest school district. (See our earlier coverage here.)

Villagraigosa also wants to appoint the superintendent.

California has a very long tradition of elected school boards who are directly accountable to the people of the community.

For Villaraigosa to get his way he'll need to change Calfornia law.

Well, he now has an accomplice in the form of State Senator Gloria Romero, (Dem. Los Angeles)
who has now introduced a bill to do just that: (emphasis added)

The legislation, modeled after districts in several large cities, would dramatically reshape governance of the nation's second-largest public school system. The mayor would be authorized to hire the superintendent and replace the seven elected board members as their current terms expire. The bill also would add two seats to represent areas of the district outside Los Angeles.

Romero's proposal, called the Mayoral Leadership to Improve Education in Los Angeles Act, is the latest volley in a running debate over who should oversee the 742,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

And, after his election last month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for the power to make board appointments.

Romero said she did not consult Villaraigosa or his staff when drafting the legislation. [Ed's Note: Oh sure, we believe that. ;)]

"We have to build trust and confidence around this idea of mayoral control," he said, noting that he intends to appoint a panel of experts to advise him on how to improve the schools. "I'm going to work first to build that trust and confidence."

State law mandates that the board members who oversee the Los Angeles Unified School District be elected from seven geographic districts that encompass Los Angeles and some or all of 28 other cities in the sprawling system.

The proposed legislation would rewrite the law to grant the mayor broad powers in appointing board members after designating the district an "academic failure" if it fails to meet certain criteria on dropout rates and standardized test scores.

Although the district has recently posted gains on test scores, it is unlikely that it could improve enough to meet the bill's criteria. The district would need to make a dramatic 42-point gain on state-mandated tests, meet stiff federal education standards for two consecutive years, and slash its dropout rate by thousands of students to avoid being declared an "academic failure."

The proposed bill would require the mayor to relinquish control of the board if the district met the criteria.

Even A.J. Duffy, the newly elected president of the local teachers union, is less than enthusiastic about the proposed power-grab by the Mayor.

Should the mayor be successful in his coup, I firmly believe that the parents and students of Los Angeles would be very ill-served by an appointed governing board of trustees that will likely be little more than a gaggle of Villaraigosa's political cronies. It goes without saying that a cabal of political appointees will be loyal to the man or woman who appoints them, and not to the parents whose kids attend the schools.

There is much room for improvement in The Los Angeles Unified School District. Certainly, there are a number of very serious concerns that need to be addressed, such as high teacher turnover and overly lax student discipline. But the method of fixing what ails the system should not involve the reducing the board's accountability to the people.

This potentially dangerous scheme hatched by Mayor Villaraigosa should be allowed to die the quiet and ignoble death that it deserves.
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