Carvalho: ‘Not out of the woods yet’ — LAUSD enacts targeted freeze as federal aid expires
Ben Chapman | December 12, 2023
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Los Angeles Unified has enacted a targeted hiring freeze and is considering closing or consolidating schools as it faces the loss of federal pandemic aid and declining enrollment, superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in an interview last week.
Carvalho, who nearly two years ago assumed leadership of the nation’s second largest school district, said LAUSD is in relatively good financial standing and that enrollment declines are slowing.
But, he said, California’s most populous city “is not out of the woods yet” when it comes to tight budgets and closing schools.
The headwinds facing Los Angeles public schools are by no means unique to that city. Districts around the country are facing the expiration next year of more than $190 billion in federal funds meant to help schools remain open during the pandemic and aid in the recovery of students.
Carvalho, who previously served as Miami’s superintendent, said LA Unified has avoided the fiscal “Armageddon” he warned of more than a year ago.
He said a reorganization of the district conducted over the past two years, to streamline school support services has netted LAUSD “dozens of millions” in savings, putting the system in good financial shape.
But the district is still developing a plan for roughly 1,800 teachers, counselors and other staffers hired during the pandemic whose salaries have been paid for using the one-time federal aid. Carvalho said “strategically essential positions” will be kept. “We need to ask the question,” he said. “Is the need still there and is this the right position?
To make up for the end of federal aid, he said, LAUSD has imposed a targeted hiring freeze, deciding on a case-by-case basis which of the employees who leave their jobs to replace.
It will use the funds from jobs that are not filled to pay for those federally funded jobs it decides to keep.
“We’re going to bank on [attrition] as a key solution” to make up for the loss of federal aid, he said.
A more complicated challenge now facing Los Angeles schools is a historic enrollment decline which has been ongoing for decades but was exacerbated by the pandemic.
While many school districts have experienced large enrollment declines since the pandemic began, several factors make the declines in Los Angeles more dramatic.
First, Carvalho said, rising housing costs have forced many families to leave Los Angeles. The average price of a single-family home there is now nearly $1 million, according to Zillow, up by more than a third from five years ago. Local incomes have not kept up with rising costs.
“The high cost of living has, over the years, pushed a lot of families out,” said Carvalho. “It’s not a function of individuals leaving the school system going to private schools or going to charter schools.”
Enrollment in LA schools for pre-K through twelfth grade has fallen from 566,604 in the 2012-2013 school year to 422,276 in the 2022-2023 academic year.
But Carvalho said the exodus may be slowing. Figures kept by the district show the number of students enrolled this year was down about two percent from the previous year.
The city’s new Universal Transitional Kindergarten program has helped bolster enrollment, Carvalho said. LAUSD stats show 6,471 students are now enrolled in the district’s pre-K programs, up from 5,687 in 2021.
Whether this is enough students to keep each of the city’s schools in operation, the superintendent said, remains an open question.
The district is not “making decisions specific to consolidation or closure of schools based on a dire financial position,” said Carvalho.
But, at some point, shrinking schools may become too small to function, he said.
“It has nothing to do with the finances,” Carvalho said. “It’s actually something to do with the type of offerings we provide our students. At a certain point a very small, secondary schools cannot offer the elective programs that kids need.”
“It certainly is a tool in the toolbox,” Carvalho said of closing or consolidating schools. “But it’s one that is used as a measure of last resort, and we are nowhere near that point.”
Still the district is looking at high schools with less than 300 students as possible candidates for closure or consolidation, he said.
High schools that enroll fewer than 300 students struggle to muster a variety of classes and extracurricular activities to adequately serve their communities, said Carvalho, adding that LAUSD has few schools of that size, and is still developing a plan for them.
Decisions to close or consolidate schools are almost always unpopular. But for Los Angeles, it’s not a question of if, but when, said Pedro Noguera, dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education.
“People have these traditional attachments, but schools that serve 1,000 kids do much better than two schools serving 500 kids a piece,” Noguera said. “The challenge will be, not just to shrink, but to shrink and get better simultaneously, so people don’t feel like they’re losing.”
Noguera said he’s encouraged by steps he’s seen Carvalho take, but declining enrollments and the need to make academic progress systemwide are still the big issues facing the district.
On the academic front, Carvalho said gains in math scores on state and national exams show the district is making progress. He also pointed to rising attendance rates as a sign LAUSD is on the upswing. The system’s average daily attendance has risen from 83% to 93% during his tenure, Carvalho said.
The superintendent also provided a few additional updates on the district in his exclusive interview with LA School Report:
- Carvalho said he has created a draft version of a controversial, new policy to limit the colocation of charter schools in certain buildings, and that next month he will present the policy as a recommendation to the district’s board.
- He said LAUSD is working on a plan to reinforce its efforts to promote literacy after state test scores released this fall showed a third straight year of declining rates of reading proficiency.
- Carvalho, who previously turned down an offer to lead New York City’s school system, said he intends to stay on as LA’s education boss for the foreseeable future. “There will be no additional superintendency for me… beyond Los Angeles,” he said.“There’s something to be said about stable, sustainable leadership.”
The Portuguese immigrant, who worked his way up from washing dishes and stints of homelessness to become one of the nation’s most celebrated educators, has already done much to earn the gratitude of his adopted home on the west coast, said Ana Ponce, executive director of GPSN, a local advocacy group.
“He’s earned the respect of educators and families,” said Ponce. “We’re all rooting for his success.”