L.A.'s business community, chastened after driving reform efforts of the Los Angeles Unified School District a decade ago, is now more cautious about L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to take control over the massive district.


Leaders of both the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association say they want to see more details of Villaraigosa's plan before they weigh in with their voices and resources.


"We're going to look at the mayor's plan, the plan from the teachers and any other plans that come forward," said David Rattray, vice president of education and workforce development for the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. "There will probably be a lot of common areas of agreement that we can focus on."


Last month, Villaraigosa said he intends to seek state legislation to enable him to set up a "council of mayors" from the 27 cities in the L.A. Unified School District to set policies for the district and hire and fire the superintendent; the Mayor of Los Angeles would have 80 percent of the voting power on this council.


Under Villaraigosa's plan, which would run for a six-year trial period, the existing elected school board would see most of its power stripped away, focusing mostly on addressing parent concerns.


L.A. Chamber officials have formed a task force that will look at the mayor's reform plan and other proposals. Its caution was echoed by VICA's president, Brendan Huffman, who said his members want to learn more about the mayor's plan.


"While we ultimately want to see the district broken up, I believe most of our members will say that anything is an improvement over the status quo," Huffman said.


The business groups have reason to be cautious. Most of these same problems existed 15 years ago, when the region's business community first became involved in trying to remake L.A.'s schools.


Back then, mayoral candidate Richard Riordan gathered support from a wealthy circle of friends in the business community to push for a reform program known as LEARN. Under this program, specifically designated schools would get control over their own budgets if they set up governance panels of teachers, parents and the principal.


Ultimately, about one-third of schools participated and did make some gains in test scores and overall performance. But the program faltered as the scandal over the Belmont Learning Center engulfed the district in 1997 and 1998.


That prompted the second reform effort from business. Riordan and billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad got the business community to bankroll a slate of reform candidates, with the aim of removing union dominance of the board. The reform slate won in 1999 and began to institute reforms, focusing mostly on the school facilities side. But two years later, the teachers union wrestled control back and the reform era was short-lived.


"Business went out on a limb and wasn't successful in the long haul," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and a City Hall lobbyist.


Unlike the efforts under Riordan, there is no public campaign in the works with Villaraigosa's plan. Instead, the major battle is likely to be fought within the Democrat-controlled Legislature in Sacramento, where business has little sway.


Nonetheless business interests will have some input. Broad and Riordan remain informal advisers to Villaraigosa, as does attorney and formal mayoral candidate Robert Hertzberg. Also, the mayor's chief of staff, Robin Kramer, previously worked for the Broad Foundation on education reform issues.


With players like these on the inside, "Business could come out on the high ground calling for reform, without having to wage a political campaign," said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton.


The day before Villaraigosa unveiled the outlines of his plan, United Teachers Los Angeles put forward their own proposal, calling for elimination of the eight local subdistricts within the District, expanding the school board and making its members full-time and giving teachers more of a say in developing the curriculum.

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