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LA Unified board and tough realities: deficit, layoffs and charters

Vanessa Romo | March 11, 2015

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UTLA holds a rally in downtown Los Angeles Feb.  26, 2015. (Credit: UTLA)

UTLA holds a rally in downtown Los Angeles Feb. 26, 2015. (Credit: UTLA)

The LA Unified school board voted unanimously yesterday to approve a “Fiscal Stabilization Plan” that calls for cuts, layoffs and smarter spending decisions to balance the 2015-2016 budget by June 30. In a separate vote, the board agreed, 5-2, to issue more than 600 teacher layoff notices for the first time in two years.

Despite massive injections of money from a new funding formula, an increase in state tax revenues reversing years of devastating cuts, and $45 million in rollover funds, the district’s projections for next year remain bleak: LA Unified is facing a budget deficit of $113 million, Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly told the board in a lengthy presentation that angered the teachers union, UTLA, as well as board members who blame the steady growth of charter schools as a driving force behind the deficit.

Reilly was supported in her presentation by Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who urged the board to stop using one-time funds for on-going expenses, saying, “If you continue this, you will be another Detroit, and that’s not many years away.”

The teachers union was quick to attack the district for approving layoffs for 609 certificated employees, including elementary teachers, counselors, psychiatric social workers, adult education teachers.

In a news release issued even before the board meeting concluded, the union questioned the timing and fairness of the decision, with the district and union at an impasse in negotiations for a new contract.

Union president Alex Caputo-Pearl alluded to the recent rally downtown that drew thousands of teachers and told board members, “I would hate to think these are being put forward as a way to push back against the righteous anger, passion and frustration that were coming out at the rally downtown at Grand Park. I fear if that’s the case, it will be kicking a hornet’s nest rather than moving towards a solution.”

The two members who voted against the layoffs, President Richard Vladovic and Bennett Kayser, are facing strong challenges in running for reelection in May.

The hour-long board debate that preceded the vote to approve the financial plan provided a vivid picture for why the district continues to find itself in a financial hole.

In discussing the root causes of budgetary challenges, Reilly said four factors account for the district’s financial troubles: Skyrocketing health benefit costs, increases in retirement pensions, underfunding of special education by the state and federal government, and declining enrollment.

Reilly explained the drop in students reflected a declining birth rate in LA County and the steady growth of charter schools.

Board member Steve Zimmer blamed a Republican-led Congress and its “anti-children living in poverty” agenda for cutbacks in federal spending on K-through-12 education, saying, “It’s just unconscionable that the federal government leaves us with this deficit.”

He went on to say that the political realities in Washington should push Sacramento to reconsider laws that allow charter schools to proliferate. LA Unified has the largest number of charters in the state, 285, serving 143,187 students, about a quarter of the LA Unified students, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

“When it comes to authorizing new charter schools, we have to be able to say that the fiscal impact on the children that remain in LAUSD is to the point where we can no longer do this in good conscience,” Zimmer said, adding, “When it reaches the point where one child’s choice impacts another, it’s not bigotry; it’s responsibility.”

But changing state laws that make it almost impossible for a district to refuse granting a legitimate application for a new charter is a hard task to accomplish, Edgar Zazueta, the district’s state lobbyist, told LA School Report.

“Those changes aren’t easy in Sacramento,” he said. They are especially difficult now, he added, because “we have an administration that’s supportive of high quality charters.”

Zazueta suggested an easier tactic might be streamlining the process of closing down low-performing charter schools. “That’s where you have more consensus among charter school advocates, traditional school advocates and labor,” he said.

“There is more opportunity on that end than just unilaterally putting caps on charters or deciding not to reauthorize charters strictly because it impacts the school district that authorizes that charter financially,” Zazueta said.

Jason Mandell, a spokesman for the state charter group, disputed Zimmer’s effort to blame charter schools as the “the primary culprit” behind the district the deficit.

Based on Reilly’s budget presentation, he said, “it was clear that charters are a minor issue, and that LAUSD’s budget difficulties stem from declining enrollments that began decades ago.”

“I don’t know how independent charter schools can be seen as the cause of all its problems when they only serve 15 percent” of the district’s students, he added, contradicting the group’s data.

Mandell also took issue with Kayser, the board’s strongest voice in opposition to charters, who argued that special education students only make up seven percent of enrollment, whereas LA Unified schools have a greater challenge — and greater expenses — with an average of 14 percent.

A recent report by the district’s Office of the Independent Monitor found that the percentage of special education students at charter schools is about 10 percent, while the percentage at about 12, according to Mandell.

“The gap is even smaller when you consider charter schools are much more likely to reclassify special education students into the general education population,” Mandell said, adding that charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools in choosing how to educate those students.


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