Until last week, Los Angeles mayoral challenger Antonio Villaraigosa had received unchallenged campaign mileage from touting his role in Proposition 1A, the $9.2 billion school bond that voters approved in November 1998. Villaraigosa had been state Assembly speaker when the Legislature put it on the ballot.
Then Mayor Jim Hahn, a dogged campaigner when pressed, tried to turn Villaraigosa's bragging point into a liability. Hahn argued that Villaraigosa deserved calumny more than credit, because almost none of that bond money initially went to Los Angeles schools.
"Antonio's management of that school bond was a meltdown of tragic proportions," Hahn told reporters last week outside an elementary school in Koreatown. "It was a management meltdown, because the money that should have gone to build more schools here in Los Angeles went to ... suburban school districts that could easily assemble the land and then get the applications to get that money."
"Parents from this school had to go to court," Hahn said.
So is Hahn right? Had he found the attack elixir to reverse polls that put Villaraigosa ahead?
A review of events suggests that the mayor correctly laid out the sequence of events, but imposed an interpretation largely at odds with firsthand accounts. The Journal looked at original documents, press reports and independent, privately funded research, while also interviewing current and former school officials and participants in the court case.
For the most part, those interviewed regard the bond episode as evidence of Villaraigosa's leadership skills, even though the results later went awry.
In 1998, Villaraigosa was the recently minted state Assembly speaker. He held the job thanks to term limits that forced out longtimers such as perennial Speaker Willie Brown.
He wanted a voter-approved school bond as part of his legacy, but first the Legislature had to place it on the ballot.
There hadn't been a successful state school bond in six years. Republicans, anti-taxers and some business interests were typically opposed. In one previous try, Villaraigosa had left the roll call open for nine hours, while he and his lieutenant, Bob Hertzberg, tried and failed to round up necessary votes.
Then, the pro-bond forces engineered a winning compromise that brought developers and Republicans on board. They would support this largest-ever school bond -- by a factor of 10 -- in exchange for a permanent limit on how much school districts could tax developers for new construction.
Developers were so enthusiastic that they helped finance the bond campaign. With the bond, they won twice -- by getting the business to build new schools and by avoiding potentially limitless taxation on their other projects.
Villaraigosa and his allies also set about writing provisions to help Los Angeles schools. At the time, LAUSD was hardly even attempting to build new campuses, so Villaraigosa made sure that the bond included $3.1 billion to modernize and repair existing campuses.
LAUSD also got a break on the matching funds it had to pay to qualify for state money. The match was 50 percent for new schools, but for fixing schools -- L.A.'s main goal at the time -- the local match was only 20 percent. Finally, there was $700 million for construction to reduce class sizes and $1 billion for "hardship cases" -- two more stipulations written with LAUSD in mind.
Legislators from outside Los Angeles were concerned that too much would go to the big city. To close the deal, Hertzberg had to convene around-the-clock negotiations over a weekend. He spent $3,000 on catered food, which included a supersized bowl of M&M's, a detail that both Hertzberg and Villaraigosa recalled.
Villaraigosa got his bond; voters passed it overwhelmingly.
As it fell out, all the backroom dealing on behalf of LAUSD was for naught. The suburbs got almost all of the money for new schools. Part of the fault lay with LAUSD: Its facilities division seemingly couldn't fill out applications quickly and correctly, let alone build schools.
But a fundamental roadblock was an obscure agency called the State Allocation Board (SAB). The SAB's process for handing out school-construction money sounded fair -- it was essentially first come, first served, as recounted in research commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation. But a completed application required "bid-ready construction plans, specifications and a site approved by both the California Department of Education and the California Office of the State Architect," according to the report, "Equity Beyond Dollars."
Unlike school systems in land-rich suburbs, urban school districts frequently faced environmental cleanups and legal battles over land. Thus, LAUSD was poorly positioned to move quickly enough from the get-go.
"We realized the state allocation process was designed to make sure no urban school district could get in line," said Connie Rice, one of the attorneys who pursued the suit, in an unpublished 2002 interview.
Contacted this week, Rice declined to elaborate on her remarks, noting that she isn't endorsing in the mayor's race. But in the earlier interview, she credited Villaraigosa with insisting on bond language that prioritized funding based on need.
"Antonio fought tooth and nail to keep the priority point system in there," Rice said in 2002. "Republicans would take it out at midnight, and he would put it back in at 4 a.m."
School district general counsel Kevin Reed, in an interview this week, also credited Tony Cardenas, who carried legislation containing these priority points. Cardenas now serves on the L.A. City Council with Villaraigosa.
The priority points should have helped LAUSD, but other language in the bond effectively gave an edge to suburban schools, said one participant in the lawsuit, who requested anonymity. Villaraigosa and his allies could be legitimately faulted for this, the source added, but then LAUSD didn't recognize the potential problem either.
After the bond passed, continued Rice, the SAB effectively nullified Villaraigosa's pro-L.A. efforts by "rearranging the allocation formula to the way they normally do it." Villaraigosa, as speaker, held sway over some members of the SAB, but not enough to overturn the offending rules.
For these external and internal reasons, by June 2000 -- nearly two years after Proposition 1A passed -- LAUSD had zero new schools under construction. The district had filed exactly one completed application for funding, for a primary center, when the district actually needed the equivalent of about 20 new high schools immediately. And two flagrantly expensive high school projects -- the Belmont Learning Complex and a new South Gate High -- had collapsed in midstream.
Eventually, LAUSD did obtain approximately $1.171 billion from Propostion 1A, but it took a lawsuit to do it. Students, parents and community groups sued the state, represented by Rice's firm and other attorneys. LAUSD was deeply involved in the background under a new leadership team that aggressively sought to build desperately needed classroom space.
Attorneys put forward several arguments, but the wording of the bond -- the language about "priority points" -- carried the day. By not funding schools where they were most needed, the State Allocation Board had thwarted the Legislature's intent, lawyers argued. The trial judge indicated that he was inclined to agree.
By this time, Hertzberg had succeeded Villaraigosa as speaker. Hertzberg was among those who urged the state to settle on terms favorable to LAUSD. The state began to honor the priority points and also slowed down the disbursement of funds, which gave LAUSD the time it needed.
Among other things, the money helped pay for a campus at the site of the old Santee dairy, south of downtown. That school will be the district's first new comprehensive high school in 34 years when it opens in July.
To be sure, Hertzberg and Villaraigosa can be expected to defend their conduct, but their accounts jibe in large measure with those of others interviewed.
A footnote: The L.A. city attorney's office also played a supporting role, submitting a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of efforts to reserve school bond money for Los Angeles. The city attorney at the time was Hahn.
"Yes, there were some problems with that state school bond," school district spokesman Glenn Gritzner said, "but the district also had its own problems, and without the bond, the money would not even have been there in the first place." -- HB