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Judges defeat Villaraigosa's LAUSD bid

A state court of appeal today soundly renounced a law designed to give Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa substantial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District. The ruling is the second -- and perhaps final -- blow to what was once the centerpiece of Villaraigosa's education-reform plan.

Today's unanimous decision, by a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, found the law, Assembly Bill 1381, unconstitutional -- and it was not a close call, in the view of the justices. In its one-paragraph conclusion, the justices gave particular importance to the revised Los Angeles City Charter that was approved during the term of then-Mayor Richard Riordan. That charter revision reaffirmed the election of school-board members with authority to govern the school district, in the view of the court.

"The citizens of Los Angeles have the constitutional right to decide whether their school board is to be appointed or elected," the justices wrote. "If the citizens of Los Angeles choose to amend their charter to allow the mayor to appoint the members of the board, such amendment would indisputably be proper. What is not permissible is for the Legislature to ignore that constitutional right and to bypass the will of the citizens of Los Angeles and effectively transfer many of powers of the board to the mayor, based on its belief, hope, or assumption that he could do a better job."

The ruling was released this morning and the mayor's office declined immediate comment.

An attorney for the school district, however, characterized the ruling as "strong and deserving."

"The court focused on the two issues that we have been focused on all along: that this takes away control over the Board of Education from the voters and gives that control to the mayor," said Fredric Woocher, an outside counsel representing L.A. Unified and other allied parties in the suit.

If the mayor's side decides to appeal, as expected, the state Supreme Court has the option of accepting or declining to hear the case. Woocher said he expects the strong wording of the appellate court's ruling to make Supreme Court intervention less likely.

"This opinion is now strong enough," Woocher said. Including the trial court judge, "we've now had four judges look at this and all of them agree. I would certainly hope that the mayor can now move in a new direction toward a true partnership."

In fact, in the wake of the litigation, Villaraigosa has pursued an alternate strategy. He has concentrated in recent months on raising money to elect a friendlier school-board majority. The fruits of that effort will become clear in a runoff election in May.

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