Monday, May 21, 2007
Villaraigosa Drops Legal Challenge Over Control of L.A. Schools
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa abandoned his crusade to seize control of Los Angeles schools Friday, a month after this district’s Court of Appeal ruled that a state law allowing him to do so is unconstitutional because it deprives the people of a vote on the issue.
The mayor said he would not seek Supreme Court review of the decision. “It’s time to get out of the courtroom and into the classroom,” he explained.
School board President Marlene Canter, who opposed the mayoral takeover, called Villaraigosa’s decision to end legal action “a new beginning.” Canter had previously pledged to work with the mayor to improve test scores and lower dropout rates.
The Los Angeles district is the nation’s second largest, with more than 708,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grades
The mayor’s announcement came just three days after two candidates he supported won seats on the seven-member board, giving Villaraigosa a like-minded majority on panel.
Soon after being sworn in as mayor in 2005, Villaraigosa vowed to wrest control of the district from the board. He now plans to work cooperatively with the board to improve troubled classrooms, he said.
“The time for debate is over,” he added.
Villaraigosa had patterned the takeover after New York and Chicago, where mayors Michael Bloomberg and Richard Daley have control over schools. Activists in both cities circulated an open letter warning Los Angeles parents not to support Villaraigosa’s bid.
In 2006, he visited New York schools and praised Bloomberg’s management. But unlike the New York and Chicago school systems, the Los Angeles Unified School District includes areas outside the city limits, and Los Angeles lacks the history of direct municipal government involvement in public education that exists in some other parts of the country.
The Legislature last year approved AB 1381, also known as the Romero Act, which would have shifted much of the board’s current authority 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 school board nor transfer the board’s powers to the mayor. But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs and the Court of Appeal’s Div. Three agreed that the measure would illegally deprive LAUSD voters of their control over the district’s political structure.
“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.”
Leaving the elected board intact, albeit with reduced clout, did not cure the deficiency and was “nothing more than an end-run around the Constitution,” Croskey said, calling the act “an unconstitutional attempt to do indirectly what the Legislature is prohibited from doing directly.”
The justice 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. He noted that Santa Ana and San Bernardino schools, among others, show lower test scores than LAUSD.
“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,” the justice concluded.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company