Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Mayoral Takeover of Los Angeles Schools Held Unconstitutional
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Legislation shifting substantial control of the Los Angeles Unified School district to the city’s mayor violates the California Constitution, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
AB 1381, also known as the Romero Act, cannot be implemented because it would deprive LAUSD voters of their control over the district’s political structure, Justice Walter Croskey wrote for Div. Three, which upheld a December ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs.
“The citizens of Los Angeles have the constitutional right to decide whether their school board is to be appointed or elected,” Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote.
“If the citizens of Los Angeles choose to amend their charter to allow the Mayor to appoint the members of the Board, such amendment would indisputably be proper,” he explained. “What is not permissible is for the Legislature to ignore that constitutional right and to bypass the will of the citizens of Los Angeles and effectively transfer many of the powers of the Board to the Mayor, based on its belief, hope, or assumption that he could do a better job.”
Attorneys for the state, the city, and a parents group supporting the legislation—which was heavily lobbied by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his backers and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—argued that the bill was valid because it left the elected board intact, albeit with reduced clout.
The legislation would have shifted much of the board’s current authority over the district of more than 700,000 students to the superintendent, would have given the mayor a veto over the board’s appointment of the superintendent, and would have transferred control of certain low-performing schools from the board to an entity headed by the mayor. The bill was proposed after the Legislative Counsel opined that lawmakers could neither grant the mayor power to appoint the board nor transfer the board’s powers to the mayor.
But Croskey said the Legislature was attempting “nothing more than an end-run around the Constitution,” and wrote:
“We conclude that the Romero Act is an unconstitutional attempt to do indirectly what the Legislature is prohibited from doing directly. The Legislature cannot overrule the LAUSD’s voters’ determination that their Board is to be elected rather than appointed, nor may it transfer authority over part of the school system to entities outside of the public school system.”
The public’s control over the district “would be annulled.” Croskey elaborated, “if the Legislature could simply bypass it by taking the powers of the Board away from that entity and giving them to the Mayor, or the Mayor’s appointee.”
In a footnote, the justice suggested that the legislation may also violate a constitutional provision requiring that legislation related to “the incorporation and organization of school districts,” be in the form of a general law, rather than a special law applicable to a single district.
In siding with the district, Croskey distinguished a Court of Appeal decision allowing the state to assume temporary control of the Oakland Unified School District as a condition of loaning the district funds to close a budget deficit.
While “the state may, and in some circumstances must, interfere with a local school board’s management of its schools when an emergency situation threatens the students’ constitutional right to basic equality of educational opportunity,” the jurist wrote, that is not the case here.
Croskey, who noted that Santa Ana and San Bernardino schools, among others, show lower test scores than LAUSD, explained:
“The Romero Act makes no findings of crisis in the LAUSD schools. Indeed, it could not, as LAUSD schools are not the worst in the state by any measure. Instead, the Romero Act purports to justify its interference with the Board’s authority on the basis that the LAUSD ‘has unique challenges and resources that require and deserve special attention to ensure that all pupils are given the opportunity to reach their full potential’....In the absence of any looming constitutional crisis, the ‘unique’ circumstances of the LAUSD do not, alone, constitute a basis for depriving the citizens of Los Angeles of their right to an elected Board running their school district.”
School board President Marlene Canter said she was gratified but not surprised by the ruling.
“I’ve always said we do not need legislation to partner together,” she told The Associated Press, adding that she wants to keep working with the mayor to improve the school system, which has been hurt by a high dropout rate and low test scores.
A group representing statewide school boards also applauded the ruling.
“We’ve said all along that AB 1381 violated the state’s constitution and, today, we received the ultimate affirmation of this stance,” Scott P. Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Association, said in a statement. “With this distraction finally behind us, it’s important for all the parties involved to get back to the business of California’s schools,” he said.
Schwarzenegger said in a statement:
“I applaud the Mayor for his continuous efforts to ensure that every student receives a high-quality education. I will continue to work with the Mayor in defending the innovative and necessary changes to the LAUSD.”
The case is Mendoza v. State of California, 07 S.O.S. 1900.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company