Antonio Villaraigosa has finally staked out his claim as the leader of Los Angeles; now all he has to do is lead.
He knows good and well what the No. 1 problem is: Public employee unions are out of control. They have gone from their rightful role as bargaining agents for workers to policy makers, successfully throwing their weight around in elections to the point that too many elected officials are little more than stooges for their interests.
As the elected leader of the city, the mayor has the primary responsibility of resolving the financial crisis brought to a head by the economic downturn.
By stepping to the forefront of the movement to reform the school system, he has now fully asserted himself as the man responsible for ending the LAUSD’s 30-year record of failure.
The city’s financial troubles are far less complicated than the challenge of providing a quality education to nearly 700,000 children.
LA doesn’t have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem mainly caused by years of sweetheart contracts with its workers that no longer are affordable.
The mayor knew, and acknowledged knowing, that the sweetened retirement deal that he and the City Council offered the unions threatened the city with bankruptcy. He pulled it off the table last spring but then lost his nerve and gave in.
It has fallen apart now, which has left the Council shivering in its boots, or more likely basking in the sun on some faraway beach where its members have fled to escape their responsibilities.
Quite simply as the city’s financial bureaucrats have repeatedly said, albeit timidly, payroll costs must be reduced. Giving a bunch of cash and enhanced pensions to workers who are ready to retire anyway doesn’t achieve this. Furloughs and deferral of raises don’t achieve the permanent reduction in payroll costs either.
There’s no mystery about how to reduce payroll costs: You either lay off workers or you reduce their pay and benefits.
The mayor’s credibility rests entirely on his screwing up his
courage and finally breaking his silence on what must be done. All the
photo ops and self-promoting tweets in the world won’t alter the
perception that he shirked his responsibility in the face of this
Coward or hero – the choice is plainly his.
It’s no different with the schools.
The school board debate Tuesday was revealing.
mayor stepped in front of a growing movement to break up the district
by giving autonomy to individual schools and helped bring several
thousand supporters of reform to LAUSD headquarters.
school board member Jackie Goldberg, teacher union leader A.J. Duffy
and others denounced the whole idea of parents, teachers, principals
actually running schools as some sort of right-wing conspiracy to keep
the poor and minorities in ignorance – as if it wasn’t their own
policies and actions that had caused the LAUSD’s failure all these
They mouthed the usual words about how all that matters
is the children but in the end all they said that mattered was
preserving union contracts – contracts that have protected the
incompetent, created a culture of mediocrity or worse and prevented the
district’s best educators from being appropriately rewarded for their
With the outcome certain, they had little left in
their arsenal beyond threatening to destroy the political careers of
those who voted for the reform plan.
Poor Steve Zimmer, the
rookie school board member, was handed the job of trying to sabotage
the plan to allow for charter operators and other educational
organizations to run 50 new schools and dozens of failing schools.
between his union loyalty and the desires of many of his Westside
constituents for local control, Zimmer stammered and stuttered and
stalled the vote for more than two hours with thinly disguised
amendments that would have undermined any hope for success of this
deconstruction of LAUSD.
It was clear he didn’t have a clue what
he was talking about most of the time. All he cared about for all his
heartfelt mutterings was making sure that no matter who runs the
schools, all the teachers will have to be members of the UTLA and that
the union contract would be fully in effect.
That his proposal
was illegal didn’t matter. The goal was to use coercion to protect the
UTLA contract that as much as anything is responsible for the failure
of one reform effort after another.
When the vote was taken,
Zimmer joined the majority in supporting the reform plan and offered a
half-coherent explanation that seemed to amount to a vow to do
everything he can to prevent any real changes from occurring.
At LAUSD, at City Hall, the battle lines are drawn.
Villaraigosa is in command. He has chosen this moment to make his stand
as a leader. It will either be his last stand or the moment will make
the man and he will rise up and achieve the promise he once seemed to