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Setting the record straight: An education expert resurfaces 2015’s independent report to explain LAUSD’s fiscal turmoil

Taylor Swaak | February 20, 2019

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(Source: L.A. Unified)

L.A. Unified’s finances can be convoluted and complex. But it’s important to read up as the conversation on how much money the district has continues to swap out facts for politics, education expert Robin Lake said.

Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, recently resurfaced a 2015 independent finance report commissioned by former Superintendent Ramon Cortines, summarizing its findings in a tweet string. The nonpartisan report attributed L.A. Unified’s money troubles to factors including “a significant structural deficit,” California’s low (albeit disputed) rank nationally in per-pupil funding, ballooning health care and pension costs, a disproportionate number of administrators, and declining student enrollment due not only to charters — which are increasingly being blamed for traditional public schools’ plight — but also birth rate declines, dropouts and transfers out of the district.

“If people are going to be weighing in … I think there’s a responsibility to take a look at what the facts are,” said Lake, who tweeted on the report during January’s teacher strike. “People have been pretty quick to point fingers.”

Though there has been “a long string of reports” on L.A. Unified’s finances, the 2015 report is reputable because the commission that produced it was “much more” nonpartisan and is not tied to the district’s current superintendent, Charles Kerchner, professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University, told LA School Report in an email last month. Superintendent Austin Beutner is a former businessman who was frequently disparaged by United Teachers Los Angeles before and during January’s teacher strike.

The report’s findings, which Kerchner called “relatively clean,” remain relevant in 2019.

L.A. Unified last month approved a teacher contract that adds $840 million to its bills through 2021. Officials say they don’t have a sustainable funding source yet and will need to prove their solvency to county overseers by mid-March to avoid a takeover. While L.A. Unified ended last school year with a record nearly $2 billion in reserves, projections show that cushion near depletion by 2021.

“I have a lot of sympathy for paying teachers what they’re worth, and teachers have hard jobs. I don’t want to dismiss that reality,” Lake said. “But it’s a common tactic for districts to take the politically expedient route of settling a contract with numbers they can’t afford. … And ultimately, kids will pay the price for it.”

Here is Lake’s tweet string:

Read the full 2015 Report of the Independent Financial Review Panel here.

For more about how L.A. Unified could pay for the contract, read our latest article:

• The L.A. teacher strike may be over, but observers warn there’s no ‘clear path forward’ for how the school district can afford its new contract

And here are some of our previous articles on the district’s finances:

Experts: Crippling long-term debt isn’t leaving L.A. schools much wiggle room to avert a teacher strike — and may doom the district to takeover

‘Painful truth’: 9 numbers haunting LAUSD as strike continues

LAUSD could lose control of its finances if it agrees to a teachers contract that depletes reserves, county warns

LAUSD’s plan to stave off financial ruin and a potential county takeover: Cut 15 percent of central office staff and save $86 million


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