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Villaraigosa makes big education, budget promises in State of City speech

The downtown Los Angeles skyline is seen from an eastside freeway. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered his State of the City address today.
The downtown Los Angeles skyline is seen from an eastside freeway. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered his State of the City address today.
Reed Saxon/AP Photo

The stars are aligned for a major overhaul of the Southland education system, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Wednesday during his annual State of the City speech, during which he focused heavily on education despite having no official role in running the city's school district.

“While it is true that I don't have any formal authority over our schools, I do have a bully pulpit and I will continue to use it,'' the mayor said.

Villaraigosa said he chose Jefferson High School as the site for his speech because it is an example of a school that has made a significant turnaround through the Public School Choice program he supports.

The program, which began in 2009, identifies the city's Los Angeles Unified School District's lowest performing schools for targeted improvement plans that include installing new leadership.

Villaraigosa called for a fundamental shift in the management of the LAUSD — changing from a system in which decisions are made at the top to one where “our local schools make the calls on budget, staffing, curriculum, schedule and professional development.''

The mayor said the expiration of teachers' contracts in June will provide an opportunity to negotiate a new contract, one that he said should empower teachers, parents and principals.

The mayor hinted at his support for a teacher-evaluation system that measures their performance in part by the achievement of their students.

“When more than 99 percent of district teachers receive the same satisfactory evaluation, it serves no one,'' he said.

“... I know that these proposals will raise some concern and spark controversy. ... As a former union organizer, I understand your (teachers') fear. I stood with you then and I'll stand by you now. Change is never easy. It's hard to risk what you've got when you never had what you deserve.''

Those comments drew some criticism from A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers.

Duffy said he took issue with the suggestion that the “contract is the impediment to school reform,'' and said measuring teacher performance by students' performance on standardized tests is “moving down the road toward narrowing the curriculum, getting rid of the arts and social studies and sciences in elementary school.''

The mayor called for more public-private partnering when it comes to education, including the establishment of a fund to maintain disappearing art, music and after-school programs.

He also suggested expanding “zones of choice,'' which allow parents to rank and prioritize a selection of schools in their areas.

The mayor fired a shot at Sacramento, saying the state needs to restore funding for education “so we aren't firing a single — not one — effective teacher, let alone 20 percent of the teachers in the state's largest school district.''

Villaraigosa spent the rest of his speech ticking off bright spots in the city's economy, infrastructure, environmental efforts and crime reduction.

He touted his America Fast Forward plan, an effort to leverage federal transportation dollars with local money, and his Summer Night Lights program, which he said led to the safest summer in three decades.

The mayor cited statistics to suggest the economy is improving, including a declining unemployment rate, and bumps in the housing and construction markets.

“At the start of my second term, I promised to make job creation job No. 1, and we have,'' he said.

Villaraigosa also touched on the city's budget crisis, promising to extend library hours, add park space, fill potholes and maintain the size of the police force, while cutting an estimated $350 million deficit.

“The simple truth is, our budget will propose a series of deep, permanent and strategic reductions in city spending,'' Villaraigosa said of his proposed budget, which is scheduled to be released April 20.

The mayor promised “a sustainable long-term solution'' to the city's structural deficit. “No fine print. No surprises,'' he added.

Villaraigosa said he will propose an 11 percent cut to his staff budget, but offered no other details about how he will reduce the city's spending while fulfilling additional promises to fill 20 percent more potholes this year and lay down 735 miles of street resurfacing.

The mayor also did not talk about contentious negotiations taking place with police and firefighters' unions over pension changes that have been recommended to cut the city's budget deficit.

The city administrative officer publicly recommended to the City Council Tuesday permanently freezing medical subsidies for retired city employees, including police officers and firefighters.

The mayor has yet to publicly weigh in on the plan, which has riled those unions.

“Don't help your CAO put a stranglehold on our future health care right now and then tell us at the point of a bayonet, `If you want it back, give us what we demand,''' Pat McCosker, head of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, told the council Tuesday.

Villaraigosa closed his speech quoting the venue's namesake, President Thomas Jefferson, “To penetrate and dissipate the clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education.

“... This is our opportunity. Let's seize it together. Our kids are counting on us.''

City Council President Eric Garcetti said he appreciated the mayor's focus on education, but said he was anticipating details of the mayor's budget proposal.

"We have to focus on the bread and butter of what we do, public safety and public works,'' Garcetti said. "I'm glad to see more money for potholes, more money for street paving and continuing money for police. The other area to focus on, though, is the deficit and getting people back to work.''