You don't have to go far to hear complaints about the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD), the city's beleaguered public school system, nor very far to catch grumbling about Mayor James K. Hahn. But linking the two is a stretch for many, because Los Angeles' mayor has no authority over the city's schools -- none at all.
Yet one challenger in particular, Bob Hertzberg, has made LAUSD the centerpiece of his campaign by pledging, somehow, to break up the nation's second-largest school system. Politically, the strategy isn't off the wall.
Education polls at the top of voter interest in Los Angeles, and, for that matter, it's also a prime focus of the Jewish community. A 1997 study commissioned by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that 64 percent of the region's school-age Jews attend public schools.
Hahn's allegedly thin profile on education, therefore, could count a great deal on Election Day. But you won't hear many complaints about Hahn from the L.A. Unified bureaucracy, which, to paraphrase Greta Garbo, mostly wants to be left alone. In that respect, Hahn has complied magnificently.
To be sure, city school officials could easily assemble a wish list for Hahn. They'd love the financial support that Santa Monica showers on its schools -- more than $450 per student, plus additional taxes that sock property owners at $331 per parcel.
L.A. school officials also wouldn't mind more help finding places to build classrooms and playgrounds -- LAUSD is pushing to complete 159 new construction projects, including 79 entirely new schools, over the next six years.
More help fighting truancy -- and preventing vandalism and other crimes near schools -- would be nice. And then there's the pernicious gang problem, which sometimes determines which children from a particular neighborhood can safely attend certain schools. It also leads to occasional campus brawls.
But many district officials would happily trade all the potential upsides for a mayor who keeps his distance. Educrats and unions prefer to call the shots themselves, even when the results displease parents and students.
That sort of stasis was upended when Richard Riordan served as mayor from 1993 to 2001. Drawing on the example of Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, Riordan led campaigns that threw out four incumbent school board members. His handpicked school board majority unceremoniously dumped Supt. Ruben Zacarias and other top bureaucrats who'd spent entire careers rising to their positions.
Ask Hahn and he'll dismiss the entire Riordan era as turmoil to no avail.
"Look, he made no impact," said Hahn in an interview with The Journal. "The previous mayor spent a lot of time and effort raising money to rearrange the members of the school board. One of them, I think, still remains of the people that he elected to office."
Hahn acknowledged schools' importance, but also insists it's not his role to manhandle L.A. Unified, saying, "I want to be a partner with the school district."
As mayor, he performed a substantial and overlooked favor for Roy Romer, the current schools superintendent. He unflinchingly supported Romer's ongoing desire to resurrect the Belmont Learning Complex project, which will likely go down as the nation's most expensive high school, whether or not it opens.
Romer's own school board has been squeamish about the safety of the Belmont site, an old oil field. But as Hahn pointed out, much of Los Angeles -- not just the unfinished school -- sits above old oil fields, so any hazards should be surmountable.
Mostly, Hahn's education agenda has been to expand a city-led, after-school program through grants and private donations.
"I'm making an impact in thousands of kids' lives every day by having an after-school program," Hahn said. "They're doing better in school. They're getting better grades. They're getting better attendance. And they're staying out of trouble."
Riordan partisans, in turn, counter that Riordan catalyzed more sweeping reforms. For one thing, it's almost certain that former Colorado governor Romer would never have become superintendent, except for the chain of events that Riordan set in motion, despite the former mayor's political missteps, philosophical inconsistencies and occasionally ham-handed meddling. Under Romer's leadership, the district has made gains in academic achievement and pressed forward unrelentingly on the country's largest school repair and construction effort.
But Romer doesn't want a mayor telling him what to do any more than did Zacarias. Romer betrayed initial concern, in fact, when Riordan became Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointed education secretary -- when Riordan appeared ready to pry into L.A. Unified's affairs again.
More recently, Romer got downright testy over Hertzberg's platform in the mayor's race. Hertzberg contends that LAUSD needs to be shattered into pieces because it's just too large, too ineffective. Hertzberg, a former state Assembly speaker, cites an alarmingly high dropout rate -- in the range of 50 percent -- as all the justification he needs.
Romer, who's in his 70s, doesn't want the distraction of a complex and years-long breakup process when he's already got a full agenda to accomplish before he leaves town. It includes his massive bond-funded construction program, which would be a challenge to divvy into pieces, especially if it means dismantling a school construction division that Romer spent several years putting together.
Of course, there's plenty of middle ground between Hahn's separation-of-powers approach and Hertzberg's atomic bomb, and that's about where Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a third major contender in next week's primary, tries to position himself. Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, has the backing of the vocal and powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
Riordan openly opposed UTLA's influence over school board elections. For his part, Villaraigosa appreciates UTLA's support, while also wanting to avoid the label of union partisan.
Riordan backed Villaraigosa's unsuccessful bid for mayor against Hahn in 2001. This time around, Riordan's supporting Hertzberg, who didn't run in 2001.
In the state Legislature, both Hertzberg and Villaraigosa, another former Assembly speaker, pushed successfully for school construction funds and made education central to their profiles as lawmakers.
More recently, Villaraigosa, in his brief tenure as an Eastside councilman, has helped clear the bureaucratic path for the opening of a well-regarded charter school. He's also participated in planning a new high school whose development could incorporate public park space, neighborhood child care, new housing and a transit station.
Hertzberg also fully embraces such efforts to make new schools into centers of community service and neighborhood revitalization.
Such aggressive collaboration may be logical and sensible, but it's not a political given. It's been more typical for council members -- and sometimes mayors -- to treat the school district as an alien force to be thwarted as a competitor for land and resources.
Mayor Tom Bradley, for all his accomplishments, opposed building a school at the Ambassador Hotel site, siding with commercial developers. Hahn, as well as his challengers, accepts that the health of the city politic is married to that of the city's schools.
But Hahn also insists that Hertzberg won't -- can't -- accomplish district breakup -- end of story.
Hahn may be correct. Yet the right leader at the right time can mightily influence events for better or worse. Romer, for one, is politically shrewd enough to understand that, as do district officials who remember when Riordan was mayor.