LAUSD board hears about coming financial crisis, considers impact of charters

FILE: Superintendent Ramon Cortines plans to draft a roadmap to stabilize the finances of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
FILE: Superintendent Ramon Cortines plans to draft a roadmap to stabilize the finances of the Los Angeles Unified School District. David McNew/Getty Images

For nearly an hour on Tuesday, Los Angeles Unified School District board members heard bleak news about the school district’s finances over the next five years from members of a blue-ribbon panel.

The panelists pointed to expensive employee benefits, declining student enrollment and other factors that are contributing to a projected $333 million budget deficit in two years and a doubling of the shortage two years following that.

Members of the panel told LAUSD board members that fixing the district's finances to avoid bankruptcy would be difficult.

“There’s no one single villain. You can’t turn to this person or this organization or to this movement and say, ‘If only they went away, all problems would be OK,’” said Miguel Santana, a panel member.

His comments appeared to refer to a charter expansion plan pushed by philanthropist Eli Broad and others, that would double the number of charter schools over eight years at a cost about $500 million. The authors envision as many as half of the LAUSD's students could be enrolled in the charter schools, which they see as an antidote to low-performing public schools.

But as the district's enrollment declines, so too does state funding tied to student counts. The school district’s enrollment has dropped by about 100,000 students in the last six years. Roughly half of that decline is due to students enrolling in charter schools, the panel reported. 

The panel laid out short-term and long-term recommendations to reduce district expenses and increase revenues, many of which require buy-in from LAUSD administrators, employee unions and parents.

“Here’s an opportunity for us to really come together, the charter movement, our labor partners, this district, our communities,” said Ref Rodriguez, board member and a charter school administrator.

His board colleague, Monica Garcia, urged the board take quick action to head off the multi-million deficit. But Superintendent Ramon Cortines said the school board should wait for him to submit a roadmap to restore the district's financial stability based on the report’s recommendations.

The board heard the report on the same day that one of its members, Scott Schmerelson, introduced a resolution calling on his colleagues to oppose the charter school expansion plan.

Schmerelson’s resolution would not call for the charters to be halted — there are questions whether the board has the authority to do so. Rather, the proposal calls on the board to oppose the charters because, Schmerelson asserts, they won’t serve all students, such as special needs children.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, United Teachers Los Angeles president, said the Broad plan “sets up a way to open unregulated schools that are not going to have to serve high-needs students, are not going to be required to have public engagement with parents, and are going to cause a drain on the district budget.”

Labor groups have strongly opposed the plan to expand charter schools, many of which are non-union.

Sarah Angel, managing director of advocacy with the California Charter Schools Association, said the solution to the district's problems should involve all parties.

“I don’t think that the ability for a parent to choose a high-quality school should be pitted against the district’s finances,” Angel said. “There’s a way to create a stable, secure financially stable school district and provide high-quality schools of choice to families who desire them.” 

The school board could vote on Schmerelson's charter school resolution at its next meeting in December.  Consideration of the resolution and review of the district's finances come as the board heads into the final phases of its search for the next superintendent.

Cortines has said he plans to step down at the end of the year.

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