In Partnership with 74

Commentary: L.A. voters should approve the parcel tax to support Beutner’s clear-headed leadership and give LAUSD students — finally — the school system they deserve

Pete Taylor and Miguel A. Santana | May 31, 2019

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To paraphrase the great philosopher Yogi Berra, education is 50 percent about teaching and learning and 90 percent about money and politics. On June 4, the voters of Los Angeles have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change that and put the focus squarely where it belongs – on LA’s children.

Over three years ago, we participated on a task force to examine the financial sustainability of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Our report laid out the fiscal emergency facing the district, and made recommendations illustrating the types of management changes that had been proven to work in other organizations to help save taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, we laid out the dire consequences of waiting to make the hard decisions required to get the district on sound financial footing.  

What was the result? Our recommendations fell on deaf ears. Neither the school board nor district leadership chose to act. For three years our report gathered dust on a shelf, despite the fact that LAUSD’s financial situation presented a clear and present danger to the education of our children.

It wasn’t until the district hired a new superintendent in Austin Beutner that we have finally seen steps taken to get the district operating in a rationale fashion. He dusted off our work, brought on staff and consultants to take a fresh look, and immediately began making moves designed to create long-lasting change in a district desperate for a reset.

Los Angeles Unified has been through a lot of change in recent years: five different superintendents in this decade alone, serial budget crises, and a seven-day strike, just to name a few. All of the instability has shifted our collective focus from what is obvious to any careful observer: Our schools have to do a better job for our kids and change is needed for that to happen.

Measure EE is important part of a comprehensive strategy to stabilize the district’s finances and improve educational outcomes for LA’s students.  

We agreed to use our experience working in complex municipal organizations to assist Beutner, and his team to improve public education in Los Angeles. Superintendent Beutner is uniquely qualified to drive needed change in the school district today. He is willing to face the tough decisions and do the work needed to pull the school district out of its financial hole. For example, he recently worked with the unions to cut health care costs by $50 million per year, saving billions over the long term. Additionally, his team has cut an additional $50 million out of the bureaucracy while increasing funding to schools.

Best of all, together with educators, families and communities, he’s developed a plan to move resources and decision-making from the bureaucracy to local schools, to better support educators and more equitably fund schools. This will bring much-needed accountability to the system, and is built around the people who matter most in helping students, principals, teachers, support staff and families.

It starts by reducing class size while increasing teacher pay. It targets more resources to the neediest students. It gives schools more support staff to deal with kids who need more help. In a set of schools that face the biggest challenges, Beutner’s plan provides extended learning time and wraparound social services for students. It provides more for teachers and principals willing to work in our most challenging learning environments.

It supports principals and school leaders with more training and greater flexibility in how to spend the dollars they have. It cuts paperwork and red tape so principals can focus on guiding and helping their teachers.

But what it does not do is re-litigate the battles of the past that have divided Los Angeles parents and teachers and impeded our progress. It’s not about charters versus traditional schools. It’s not about whether we have more testing or tougher evaluations for teachers. Fundamentally, it’s about re-positioning the district’s revenues to focus on our schools and classrooms so that we get better results for students.

Great schools make great school districts, not the other way around. With nearly 100 languages spoken by our students and families and over 1,300 schools spread across 700 square miles, the answers to our educational challenges will never be found in the downtown headquarters. The best ideas come from those closest to the classroom. The main thing for Los Angeles Unified is to listen to them, empower them and give them the resources necessary to be successful.

We have no interest in supporting an inefficient and wasteful bureaucracy. Our professional careers have been built helping organizations operate more efficiently and effectively through the thoughtful use of taxpayer dollars.  

At long last, after years of broken promises and failed initiatives, Los Angeles Unified is now finally starting to earn back our collective trust. But they can’t do it if they are in a perpetual state of crisis. A crisis built, in part, on chronic underfunding of schools. With the strike behind us and a promising future ahead of us, it’s time for communities across greater Los Angeles to come together on behalf of our children and educators and do the right thing.

We believe that Superintendent Beutner is showing the kind of leadership we can applaud and endorse. Let’s help him provide our schools the money they need to succeed. Let’s give our principals and teachers the freedom and support to do their jobs. Let’s give our families the information and the welcoming hand they need to be full partners in the education of their children. And let’s finally give our kids the kind of schools they need and deserve in order to thrive and succeed in a rapidly changing world.

We encourage other Los Angeles residents to vote yes on Prop. EE on June 4th.  

Peter Taylor served as chief financial officer for the University of California system from 2009-2014. Miguel A. Santana served as City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles from 2009-2016.


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