May 24, 2007
LAUSD president gets lesson in partnership
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"My Judaic background was based on political activism," Canter said. "I was raised to believe that change happens from being involved. My parents taught me you don't sit on the sidelines and complain."
Canter was overwhelmingly elected to the school board in 2001.
One of her first acts as board member was to travel around the city by bus, visiting the most overcrowded schools. Romer had just begun the $19.2 billion new construction project, with 150 new schools planned by 2012. By the time Canter was re-elected to another four-year term in 2005 and became board president, more than one-third of those schools had been built, relieving overcrowding and returning 98 elementary schools back to the traditional calendar year.
During the past six years, Canter has worked with parent leaders and individuals to recruit families back into their neighborhood elementary and middle schools.
"This is the biggest opportunity parents have ever had to really create neighborhood schools," Canter said. "We haven't been able to do that in a very long time. By 2012, we plan to have a neighborhood school in every neighborhood of Los Angeles."
Canter's critics have accused her of micromanaging the board to the detriment of the students. While she focused on laundry lists, critics said, developing policy to improve academic achievement went missing.
An audit of the school district by Evergreen Solutions of Florida seconded that view. The report criticized the poorly defined roles and responsibilities of the board and the superintendent, stating: "The governing body and individual board members are heavily involved in management operations and issues and not focused on policy."
According to Canter, many of those problems have already been resolved. Superintendent Brewer has met with the board on two different occasions to define their separate roles and responsibilities -- not in response to the audit but in response to the transition between two very different superintendents.
But for Canter to silence her critics, she will have to act quickly to implement reform policy that the district needs in order to move forward. And the mayor's reversal on AB 1381 may give her the chance to do that.
Last week's mayoral news conference, where Canter stood just to Villaraigosa's right, came following a slow détente between the two leaders.
The night before this year's March primary elections, Canter received a phone call at home from Villaraigosa. They had not spoken in seven months, while the mayor-backed bill, AB 1381, was in the courts waiting an appeal. Now four school board candidates favored by the mayor were running in the next day's election. He was calling to extend an olive branch.
"No matter what the outcome of this election," Villaraigosa told Canter, "I want to start working together."
"I'm delighted," Canter responded. "This is what I've been wanting for two years."
The mayor also pledged to help her and Brewer on two important bills: one in Sacramento that would affect the district's funding for the new school construction program, the other in Washington, D.C., concerning special education and coordinated testing standards in the No Child Left Behind program.
Soon after the elections -- in which the mayor's school board candidates won one, lost one and tied two -- Villaraigosa met with Canter and Brewer together for the first time. He reiterated that he wanted to work together.
Later that month, Canter and Brewer joined the mayor as part of a delegation traveling to Washington to meet with senators about No Child Left Behind. It was the first time that Canter, Brewer and Villaraigosa had been seen working together as a team. Their public appearance had enormous significance to Canter.
"It was a milestone," she said. "By meeting with us together, the mayor established a new tone and tenure for partnership. I felt encouraged."
On April 17, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision, ruling for a second time that AB 1381 was unconstitutional. Canter was relieved, while the mayor spoke of a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The following week, Villaraigosa, Canter and their staffs met in what those in attendance agree was a friendly meeting.
"Everyone was here in the best interest of the kids," said Marshall Tuck, 33, the former president of Green Dot Charter Schools and now head of the Mayor's Community Partnership for Excellence in the Schools. "They may have had their disagreements about AB 1381, but the mayor and the board president are both passionate about education."
In the May 15 runoff elections, the mayor gained two more seats on the school board with Tamar Galatzan and Richard Vladovic, both part of the mayor's reform platform. With Yolie Flores Aguilar, who was elected in March, and Monica Garcia, elected last year, Villaraigosa now has a 4-3 majority on the school board.
A few days after the election, the mayor announced his decision to drop his legal battles against Los Angeles Unified.
Canter is optimistic and enthusiastic about working with the mayor and his allies.
"I expect the same of everyone I work with, as long as we work together as a team," she said. "We have a huge job in front of us. The most critical issue is improving our schools."
The critical question is what will a partnership between the mayor and the school district look like now?
Canter would like to see the mayor use his full jurisdiction, to go beyond the three clusters of low-performing schools. Brewer has talked to Villaraigosa about establishing empowerment zones: literacy centers in housing projects, gang intervention in neighborhoods and parent and community involvement.