|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Wednesday, December 8, 2004
Los Angeles Times 12-8-04
A Drive to Split School District
Riding a yellow school bus to elementary schools across the city, Los Angeles mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg sought Tuesday to put his plan to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District at the center of the race.
"As mayor, I certainly want to improve the job conditions, reduce crime, and I want to reduce traffic. But … I start with the issue of education because it is so fundamental to all of us," Hertzberg said, standing outside an East Los Angeles school.
Hertzberg is not the first politician to propose dismantling the nation's second-largest school district, whose record of failure has long made it one of the city's most embattled institutions. But with three news conferences Tuesday and new details about his plan to create neighborhood-based districts, Hertzberg has gone further than any other major candidate to inject the schools into the contest.
As he fights to distinguish himself from Mayor James K. Hahn's other challengers, Hertzberg is increasingly staking his political future on discontent with the schools, particularly in his political base in the voter-rich San Fernando Valley.
On Tuesday, former Mayor Richard Riordan, who made improving the schools a top priority of his administration, said in an interview with The Times that he favors Hertzberg's plan. Riordan is now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's education secretary, but he stressed that he was not speaking for the governor.
Hertzberg's four main rivals, including Hahn, have given the proposal a cool reception. At last week's debate, the mayor scoffed at Hertzberg's plan and touted city-funded after-school programs as a more constructive way to help schools.
Supt. Roy Romer and the powerful teachers union also have dismissed the breakup proposal, which has been advocated unsuccessfully by a shifting array of Los Angeles communities and politicians since the Watts riots nearly 40 years ago.
"This is going to be made into a political football," Romer said last week after Hertzberg unveiled his plan. "We ought not to hurt the kids for somebody's political advantage."
But Hertzberg, who did not consult Romer before he proposed the breakup, appears undeterred. In the past week, he has stepped up his campaign, arguing that although the mayor does not have a direct role in the city's public schools, he has a duty to use the office to push sweeping reform.
On Tuesday, Hertzberg decried the district's high dropout rate as he visited a Wilmington elementary school not far from Hahn's San Pedro home and another in Boyle Heights just blocks from the district office of Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, another leading candidate.
Hertzberg was joined by several dozen parents, students and other supporters who filed in and out of the bus with Hertzberg signs and later signed an oversized petition calling for a district breakup.
"I just can't run for mayor of Los Angeles and tell you that's somebody else's responsibility. These are our children, and I'm not walking away from them," Hertzberg said outside Breed Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights as a police helicopter circled over the largely Latino neighborhood.
With a light rain beginning to fall, Hertzberg, who represented the San Fernando Valley in the state Assembly for six years, ended his tour on his home turf outside Sherman Oaks Elementary School.
State officials estimate L.A. Unified's high school dropout rate exceeds 33%, more than 2 1/2 times the dropout rate statewide.
The former Assembly speaker said he did not know how many school districts he envisions replacing L.A. Unified, but he said he would convene a task force to develop a plan within 90 days of taking office.
And he pledged to spearhead a statewide initiative, if it is necessary, to break apart the district.
On the tour, several parents voiced support for Hertzberg's plans as they expressed frustration at the size of the district and its failures.
"In this community, most of our kids end up dropping out or having their own kids," said Guillermina Cueva, a Mexican immigrant who is raising six children in Boyle Heights and said she decided to support Hertzberg after talking with him about education at a recent community meeting.
Riordan, who pushed a slate of reform school-board candidates when he was mayor and helped bring Romer to Los Angeles, said Tuesday he believed it is time to break up the district.
"Roy Romer has done a fantastic job," said Riordan, noting recent improvements in test scores and the $14-billion school construction program underway.
"But it's a big, big ship with layers upon layers of bureaucracy ... and we know smaller districts in general do better."
Riordan's wife, Nancy Daly Riordan, is a co-chair of Hertzberg's campaign, although Riordan has not endorsed a candidate.
Hertzberg's plans may also help him woo voters in the Valley, which has a long history of fighting for independence from downtown institutions. Two years ago, the Valley tried unsuccessfully to secede.
But a breakup plan faces monumental obstacles.
A succession of politicians has tried to break up the district since the late 1960s, when an unlikely coalition of African American leaders seeking more control over schools and conservative Valley leaders who distrusted government pushed a breakup plan through the Legislature. Gov. Ronald Reagan vetoed the plan in 1970, and all subsequent efforts have failed.
Most recently, the state Board of Education unanimously quashed a plan to create a separate Valley district in 2001.
Hertzberg did not support that plan when he was Assembly speaker.
Last week, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles dismissed Hertzberg's latest plan as "nonsense."
And Tuesday, even one of the parents who came out to stand with Hertzberg supporters at Sherman Oaks Elementary School said she was uncomfortable with the idea.
"We are proud of our school," said Joan Pelico, development director of the Sherman Oaks Parents Assn. "We are proud of our district."
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