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State of the City

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Today at 5:30 pm, Mayor Villaraigosa made a "State of the City" address -- sort of like the State of the Union address, but just for LA. In fact, the speech in many ways served as the inverse of this year's State of the Union address.

"Angelenos, it's time for all of us to make the tough choices," said Mayor Villaraigosa. According to the Mayor, we're trying to stop violence and inequity, and we're all in it together. He listed a series of visions that will be addressed in his budget: a better public transportation system, synchronized traffic lights and better paid roads, more cops on the streets, more services for the homeless, and, as was much anticipated, education reform.

He held the address not at City Hall, but at The Accelerated School, a public charter school in South Los Angeles, which he held up as a model for what he wants to achieve via education reform. We watched/listened to the speech via the webcast on his site. Much of what he said has been covered in an announcement earlier this week. He wants to cut the central administration of LAUSD, which, according to everyone we've ever spoken with who is remotely familiar with the school district but doesn't actually work in its headquarters, is insanely bloated and bureaucratic. He wants to expand after-school programs. He wants to lengthen the school day and shorten the summer break, which makes sense given that most parents work now and struggle to find activities for their children before they get home. He wants to give "the mayors of the cities in LAUSD" (How many mayors is that, really? A lot of independent cities in LA County do have their own school systems. ) control of the school district, taking most of the power away from the school board. That's the kicker. It's the only way he can attempt major reform and expect to have any real control over the outcome, but once you make a shift like that, it holds true for whoever holds the office on down the line, so it's important to think it through.

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What the mayor didn't talk about much yet was how he plans to pay for these programs, or exactly what sacrifices he expects Angelenos to make. He said he'll make his full budget announcement in two days. He said part of the money will come from squeezing any money out of the budget that's currently being wasted. That's a promise made by many elected officials every year, but they don't all have a City Controller like the fierce and fair Laura Chick, who the Mayor said is leading the change. (I was tangentially affected by one of Chick's audits once. She was extremely thorough and very much right about the problems at hand).

So we're still not sure what the sacrifices to which the mayor alluded throughout the speech are, and we won't find out for sure for a few more days. Higher taxes? Higher fees, like the higher fees for trash removal he mentioned a few days ago? Cuts in services? At least we were forewarned, though, and at least he's chosen major areas of focus where, if he succeeds, he really could transform the region.

On the other hand, sweeping attempts at reform can also lose you fans who have investments in the status quo. James Hahn made tough decisions when he stopped the Valley from seceding and replaced Bernard Parks with William Bratton as police chief. James Hahn also lost his re-election bid.

The thing is, though, that Villaraigosa, unlike Hahn, is a consummate politician -- often in the best sense of that much-maligned word. He addressed his remarks on the school district to the teachers who work in it, attempting to show that he understood their point of view and is on their side. "We will never fix our schools without raising respect and reward for the teaching profession," he said. He did ask teachers to work much longer hours, and summers, but suggested they'd be paid for it. He also suggested that the money from cutting the administration could go to teachers' salaries. He suggested teachers should have more opportunity to innovate in their lesson plans. He also suggested a process of peer review. He might gain the support of teachers who currently feel underpaid and overburdened with bureaucracy, if he really can make their jobs better. Any teachers reading? Do you buy it? Right now we're buying it, but we'll let you know for sure once we find out what we'll have to give up.

photo by eecue.