Education

About that supposed $1 billion-plus LA Unified budget deficit…

The L.A. Unified School Board meets at the school district's downtown headquarters on March 14, 2017.
The L.A. Unified School Board meets at the school district's downtown headquarters on March 14, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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In the run-up to last week's Los Angeles Unified school board election, voters saw many ads detailing the "fiscal mess" in the district, including one television spot that said L.A. Unified faces a budget deficit of $1.4 billion.

But, according to budget projections district officials released Tuesday, L.A. Unified will end this year with a $570 million surplus. By 2018-19, the projections show the district's budget will slide into the red — but the projected deficit is smaller than the ads said: around $395 million.

So, which is correct: Is the school district in the red or in the black? The short answer is "in the black for now," but "in the red in two years."

That $1.4 billion deficit figure does comes from L.A. Unified's own financial status reports. But district officials say the ads, which were paid for by the political affiliate of the California Charter Schools Association, cited a figure that may not be the best metric for judging the fiscal health of the nation's second-largest school system.

It all goes back to a complex disagreement between L.A. Unified, the California Department of Education and civil rights advocates who take issue with how the district accounts for its spending on several groups of high-needs students.

Last summer, the state issued a decision saying L.A. Unified officials would have to more clearly outline how district schools were serving low-income students, foster kids or English learners. If they couldn't do so, district officials said L.A. Unified's projected deficit would skyrocket to more than $1 billion.

That worst-case scenario is where the $1 billion figure cited in the charter school association's ads originates.

"Both numbers are accurate," said Richard Garcia, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, the charter association's political affiliate.

In December, though, L.A. Unified officials announced they had been consulting with state officials on "realigning" the district's budget so that they better-serve English learners, foster kids and low-income students — or, at minimum, more clearly account for the ways the district is already spending on these students.

If that plan is ultimately approved, the district projects a budget surplus in 2017-18 of $179 million and a deficit in 2018-19 of $395 million.

"That really speaks to the more current snapshot of our budget," said Pedro Salcido, L.A. Unified's interim co-director of government relations.

But L.A. Unified's plan could also fall through. To pass the "realignment," the district must amend its Local Control Accountability Plan, a process that involves a dozen community meetings and a vote of the school board, and win the blessing of L.A. County Office of Education officials. If they stumble at any one of those steps, the $395 million projected deficit in 2018-19 balloons again.

As Salcido put it, the budget process "is completely fluid."

Cuts to the district's central office workforce appear to be part of the ultimate budget calculus.

The report L.A. Unified officials released Tuesday lists more than 300 positions who will receive a notice that their jobs could potentially be at risk as part of a potential $86.5 million in central office cuts.

During Tuesday's meeting, representatives of both the California School Employees Association and Associated Administrators of Los Angeles unions delivered comments to the board criticizing the district's moves toward job cuts.

"It is always painful to issue notices of potential changes in positions to our L.A. Unified family," board president Steve Zimmer said in a statement. "Our hope is that this student achievement centered approach will better align support closer to the classroom — both accelerating academic outcomes and minimizing ultimate job loss."