Education

LA Unified's voting on a budget. Here are 5 reasons why you should care

Michelle King, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, addresses students in a classroom at Fremont High School in South L.A. as Mayor Eric Garcetti (in background) looks on.
Michelle King, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, addresses students in a classroom at Fremont High School in South L.A. as Mayor Eric Garcetti (in background) looks on.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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More than 503,000 children will attend schools run by the Los Angeles Unified School District next year — and few votes the district's board will take in the next year will have as much direct impact on their lives as the ones they'll take Tuesday.

Board members are expected to approve L.A. Unified's massive operating budget at a special meeting. They'll also vote on a plan detailing how they'll spend state money to help three groups of vulnerable kids: low-income students, foster youth and English language learners.

Here are five must-know facts about the budget:

L.A. Unified's proposed operating budget is nearly $7.5 billion.

Can we dwell for a second on how much money that is? $7.47 billion is more money than Montana spends in a year — Montana, as in, you know, the state of Montana. L.A. Unified spends more than 29 state governments appropriate on K-12 education, according to one analysis, including Maryland ($7.4 billion), Massachusetts ($6.7 billion) or Arizona ($5.9 billion).

The district's budget is bigger than most other government entities in Southern California, excluding the city and county of Los Angeles, respectively. Think of it this way: picture the spider web of L.A. Metro's transit map, which serves more than 1,400 square miles and transports more than 1.3 million people per day — that all costs less to operate each year than the L.A. Unified School District.

A central office shakeup will likely cost 114 L.A. Unified employees their jobs and impact another 800 staffers.

Superintendent Michelle King has asked managers to slash the district's $338 million central office budget and move more of that money — and person-power it represents — out to the district's school sites.

King's push has resulted in a "reduction-in-force" plan that goes before board members Tuesday. The district would lay off 114 library aides, clerks, accountants, aides and other employees (some of whom are part-time) under that plan. The district would also essentially demote another 291 people and reassign another 541 employees.

Total savings: almost $80 million. But the unions who represent those employees question why this move is necessary, because…

L.A. Unified has a surplus. For now, anyway (dun dun dunnnn).

The district's budget office forecasts the nation's second-largest school system will end the 2017-18 school year with cash to spare: $275 million, they say.

But L.A. Unified budget officials, famous for their gloomy long-term outlook, predict the district will be forced to use that leftover money to balance the 2018-19 budget. By 2019-20, the district could face a $422 million deficit, according to officials' projections.

Some L.A. Unified budget-watchers argue this projection isn't to be taken seriously, saying this isn't the first time district officials have warned dire financial consequences loom in the not-so-distant future — and, they argue, the district's been wrong. That said…

The district's long-term obligations are adding up — and this budget doesn't really do anything about it.

In a briefing for reporters last week, L.A. Unified budget officials pointed out all of the efforts underway to shore up the district's long-term finances: A unified enrollment system meant to reverse the money-draining, decade-long decline in L.A. Unified's enrollment. Stepped-up marketing efforts. Studies of special education and warehouse costs.

But as the budget memo itself hints — right here on page two — it's all for naught if the district doesn't address "the challenge to its resources resulting from increased fixed costs, such as pension costs … and other post-employment benefits." The district's promise of lifetime health benefits for retirees is underfunded to the tune of more than $13.6 billion, for example. (Here, again, some budget watchers charge obscure changes to accounting rules are allowing district officials to inflate the extent of the district's liabilities to create a crisis atmosphere.)

In any case, L.A. Unified will see its required payment to the state teacher pension fund increase by almost 20 percent this year and its healthcare costs jump by almost 10 percent. Earlier this year, school board candidates debated whether the district needs to consider more aggressive changes to its benefits offerings for new hires; this budget doesn't include any such changes.

The district will have to justify how it spends on 'high-needs' students — if not to the state or civil rights activists, then to a court.

For two years, L.A. Unified administrators have been embroiled in a dispute with civil rights groups.

They sued the district in 2015, alleging L.A. Unified has been misspending more than $1.1 billion in money intended for targeted services for low-income students, foster children and English language learners. Instead, the plaintiffs say, the district spent about $450 million of that earmarked funding to pay for special education — which, the plaintiffs argue, would violate the spirit, if not the letter of the state's school funding law.

Last year, right as the district was putting the finishing touches on its 2016-17 budget, state education officials essentially decided that the plaintiffs had a point. Their decision didn't endorse the plaintiffs' arguments altogether, but it nonetheless sent district officials scrambling to figure out how to spend millions more on low-income, foster or English learner students — or at least to figure out how to account for more ways it was spending on them in targeted programs. (If you want to go down the rabbit hole of this incredibly fraught dispute with us, we've got more for you to read right here.)

Last December, L.A. Unified officials announced they believed they had found a way to "realign" enough spending to satisfy state officials. That spending is documented in the district's "Local Control Accountability Plan," which hints that the district crafted it in consultation with the state — though the document does not explicitly say state officials have given it their blessing.

But L.A. Unified still need to convince the plaintiffs (the ACLU and the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles), and it's unclear whether they'll be entirely satisfied by the district's plan.

So, fast-forward to Tuesday, and again to page two of the budget memo that will go before board members for a vote right after the $7.5 billion budget package. That package, the memo reads, "assumed the approval of the realignment exercise and a positive outcome of the … lawsuit."

"Any outcome to the contrary," the memo goes on, "would significantly impact the District's financial condition."