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Dan Walters: The games adults play on schools

This pattern has become all too common in California's schools districts, large and small:

An election changes the balance of power, and the newly constituted board tells the district superintendent to take a hike so it can bring in someone more to its liking.

These abrupt changes don't come cheap. Take, for instance, what happened in Southern California's Rialto Unified School District.

School unions won a majority on the board, and Superintendent Edna Davis-Herring soon departed, receiving a $300,000 severance package.

The immense Los Angeles Unified School District also saw a political sea change, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's allies achieving a majority on a board that had earlier resisted his efforts to gain administrative control of the district on the promise to fix its low academic scores and high dropout rates.

The district stubbornly opposed legislation granting Villaraigosa the authority he sought, and he had to settle for a half-a-loaf that gave him control of a few schools.

And during the political battle, the board figuratively thumbed its nose at the mayor by hiring a new superintendent, retired Navy Vice Admiral David Brewer.

Like every other aspect of Los Angeles politics, the conflict had racial overtones. Brewer is African-American, and Villaraigosa is Latino.

As a sop to Villaraigosa, the board hired a veteran Latino educator, Ramon Cortines, as a kind of co-superintendent.

Eventually, however, the mayor's acolytes won a board majority.

This month, after several days of maneuvering and speculation, Brewer departed with a $517,500 severance package.

Cortines, as expected, became his successor.

What happened in Rialto and Los Angeles demonstrates anew how local school politics in California, even in its smaller districts, have become totally politicized arenas in which politicians, unions, parent groups and others play their power games while insisting that they're really interested in the welfare of children.

It may be only a coincidence, but the rising politicization of education in California over the past three decades has matched precisely the deterioration of the state's academic performance we're very near the bottom in most categories as well as the endless battles over money both locally and in Sacramento.

Villaraigosa got what he wanted, but now that he has de facto control of Los Angeles schools, he will be the one held responsible for how they educate nearly 700,000 kids, amassing a record that will either enhance his ambition to become governor or provide his rivals with deadly ammunition.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez said it well, writing, "Now is the time for Villaraigosa to come out from behind the curtain and show us what he had in mind when he insisted three years ago that he could do a better job running the schools ... (and) he's running out of people to blame for anything less than dramatic reforms and improvements."

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.