The Los Angeles Unified school board blessed Superintendent Ramon Cortines' $8 billion spending plan Tuesday, funneling a $820 million increase in state funding next school year into teacher raises, maintenance and other programs cut during the recession.
As California's education budget grows to $53 billion, L.A Unified is one of many school districts using its share to shore up operations after years of recession-era cuts, among them layoffs of thousands of teachers, librarians and nurses from district schools.
Those employees who survived the lean years saw the buying power of their paychecks shrink after the district deferred cost of living raises. Students sidestepped broken toilets, leaky water fountains and falling ceiling tiles after the district raided funds previously earmarked for maintenance and repairs to keep teachers in classrooms.
This year, the district received an infusion of new funds from the state, which the school board celebrated at its budget meeting Tuesday.
"This is by far the best budget we have seen in many years," said board member Monica Garcia, who presided over the board during the recession.
But advocates chide the district for failing to seize the opportunity to seed new and improved services for the district's more than 500,000 high-needs students, those who are English learners, foster youth and children from low-income families.
California's new public school funding formula called the Local Control Funding Formula allots additional cash for these high-need students, but the district is using much of the new money to cover growing special education costs.
Diana Guillen, a parent of English learners in Pico Union, said the district is misallocating the cash designated for kids like hers.
"They buy things like electronics that go in the trash," said Guillen, speaking in Spanish. "They have money, but they don't spend it on the necessities."
Superintendent Ramon Cortines told a board room packed with teachers he wished he could do more. "So many issues, so little time, but together, we can make progress," Cortines said, choking back tears.
The 2015-2016 budget marks a turn away from former Superintendent John Deasy's priorities, most notably the district's $1 billion iPad program. Deasy resigned last October, in part because of problems with the rollout of the program that aimed to place a tablet in the hands of every student.
Cortines' budget cuts technology expenditures by more than 30 percent to $3 million while growing the technology support staff to $5 million.
The superintendent also oversaw negotiations with the teachers union and signed off on a 10 percent raise and large pension and healthcare packages. The cost of employing the district's more than 250,000 teachers is ratcheting up $124 million to more than $2 billion next year.
Other notable program increases include:
- 42 percent growth in arts education to $32 million.
- 86 percent increase in instructional materials to $295 million.
- 151 percent hike in ongoing and major maintenance to $201 million.
Declines in program funding include:
- 20 percent decrease in parent involvement funding to $17 million.
- 65 percent drop in special education counselors to $2 million.
- 50 percent decrease in gifted and talented program to $1.3 million.
District officials gave no explanations for these cuts during the board meeting.
The board also agreed to cut about 3,000 half-day preschool seats as a means to grow a full-day program for four-year-olds in greatest need.
Right after he took the helm as superintendent, Cortines warned that the district was suffering from a “structural deficit” as operational costs ticked up and enrollment declined.
More than 600 teachers and other staff received layoff notices last spring, but the growing state revenue is more than enough to balance the budget. So the board asked the superintendent to “attempt to ensure” the notices are rescinded.