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LA Unified Board Confronts the Pinch of a Tight Budget

Hillel Aron | October 2, 2013

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IMG_2712Is the Los Angeles Unified School Board finally coming to terms with harsh fiscal realities of a post-recession world? That’s what it seemed like yesterday, when the members met for one of the shortest meetings in recent memory, only four hours.

A combination of declining enrollment, federal cuts in special education and this year’s Federal sequestration has put a big pinch on big plans. While the district managed to close a $450 million budget gap for the current fiscal year, thanks in part to one-time funds from the state, it faces a $350 million deficit in 2014-15.

If the board didn’t understand that before yesterday, it seems crystal clear now.

Months ago the members directed Superintendent John Deasy to devise a spending plan that included a laundry list of wants, needs and programs, including rehiring employees laid off during the recession and bringing back student-to-teacher and student-to-counselor ratios to 2007 levels.

The presentation Deasy and LAUSD Chief Operating Officer Megan Reilly made to the board brought the fiscal reality into the open, leaving the unmistakable message: We can’t afford what you want.

Several members bristled when Deasy ticked off the costs of various items the board wanted to fund, including $207 million for new teachers, $68.8 million for psychiatric social workers, $300 million for extending to the school year 20 days. The total bill, including the cost of closing the deficit: as much as $1.4 billion.

“What are the prospects of us getting a billion dollars,” Monica Ratliff asked Reilly.

“Not at all,” she said.

Board member Steve Zimmer seemed to find the presentation incomplete, lacking a grand vision to move the district toward long-term fiscal stability.

“We asked for a three-year plan of what it might look like,” board member Steve Zimmer said. “This isn’t a design. This is only what the costs are.”

He asked Deasy to provide “a trajectory” for the future, a request echoed by Board President Richard Vladovic, who said, “I prefer a strategy that we can move toward over the next five to 10 years.”

Deasy’s presentation did include a three-year plan, of sorts, his own spending recommendations for the next three years, which included pay raises for current LA Unified employees and allowing school sites to make their own spending decisions, a contentious issue.

Local input has emerged as a major concern in the budget debate, and it’s now clear that no vote on spending will take place until a series of public meetings are complete. Deasy’s proposal listed five that have been scheduled with community groups, and a sixth is on the books to give the district’s unions the opportunity to contribute ideas.

In drawing the meeting to a close, Vladovic, who has been criticized by community groups for not engaging them more aggressively, said, “I encourage parents out there to attend one of these meetings.”

Public comment will likely weigh heavily on one of the major points of contention in the battle over spending priorities. Zimmer and others on the board want to rehire personnel, with the idea that to solve the long-term problem of declining enrollment — 3 to 3.5 percent a year, about half the number students leaving district schools for independent charters — it must bring back more teachers, counselors and librarians.

That debate, begun in June, will continue into November, when the board has a meeting scheduled to discuss spending priorities and, presumably, a “trajectory.”

In the meantime, the first public meeting will be held Oct. 8 at Daniel Pearl Magnet HIgh School in Reseda.

Previous posts: Local Groups to LA Unified Board: Let Schools Decide SpendingLA Unified Budget Wars Return with the Usual Competing VisionsDeasy’s D.C. Trip Yields ‘Less than Positive News’ on Federal BudgetCommon Core Budget Approval Put Off for Another WeekSchool Board Meeting Wrap Up: More Discussion Than Votes*

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