Envisioning a 'leaner' LA Unified HQ, superintendent asks for plan to cut central office by 30 percent

FILE - Superintendent Michelle King at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Girls Academic Leadership Academy at Los Angeles High School in the Mid-City neighborhood on Aug. 15, 2016.
FILE - Superintendent Michelle King at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Girls Academic Leadership Academy at Los Angeles High School in the Mid-City neighborhood on Aug. 15, 2016.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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Superintendent Michelle King has asked managers in the Los Angeles Unified School District's central offices to submit plans outlining how they would slash their departments' budgets by 30 percent in the coming fiscal year, according to a memo obtained by KPCC.

For now, it's just a planning exercise. But top district officials say the aggressive cost-cutting target — the reductions would total more than $112 million if fully implemented — falls in line with King's vision for a slimmed-down headquarters and a district in which school sites are given greater control over their own budgets.

"It's not just another 5 percent drill," said L.A. Unified Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly. (Some central office departments took a 5 percent cut this year, saving a total of $11 million.)

For managers to hit their cost-saving targets of 30 percent, they couldn't simply close open positions or pick off other similar low-hanging fruit in their budgets. The idea behind the exercise, Reilly said, is to prompt central office mangers to completely rethink how they operate as declining enrollment in L.A. Unified kinks the district's revenue stream.

"You can’t get to 30 percent without really reinventing yourself or basically talking about consolidation in other types of functions," Reilly said.

"I call it an exercise," Reilly added later, "but this is, in reality, something we will be going through … to look at how do we work effectively with a smaller, leaner kind of headquarters."

L.A. Unified’s own projections show an operating shortfall of up to $663 million in the 2017-18 budget year. If that holds true, the long-term fiscal stabilization plan approved in June calls for $60 million in cuts to central office departments next year.

That grim projection, however, does not factor in new revenues the district could see from Proposition 55, a measure on the statewide ballot in November that would extend an income tax increase on the rich to benefit healthcare programs and schools.

The measure, which one poll showed as leading by a wide margin, could net L.A. Unified as much as $120 million in new revenues starting in 2018-19, district projections show.

L.A. School Board president Steve Zimmer questioned the thinking behind the 30 percent cost-cutting exercise.

“If departments need to be reinvented, they should be reinvented based on drivers of changing outcomes for students who need public education the most, not based on a budget number,” said Zimmer, whose board district covers Hollywood and much of the westside.

Former school board member David Tokofsky was more blunt in his take on the cost-cutting exercise: "Stop peddling crisis."

"When you constantly ask for people to cut, you demoralize the entire institution rather than reawakening their mission and their hope," said Tokofsky, who now works as a strategist for the union representing L.A. Unified principals, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

But board member Mónica Ratliff, who represents the east San Fernando Valley, praised the superintendent, calling King's approach thoughtful and responsible — and one that would not necessarily lead to slash-and-burn, across-the-board cuts.

"I don’t think the superintendent is interested in suddenly laying off a lot of people," said Ratliff, who is also running for city council. "I don’t think it’s good for morale, I don’t think it’s good for the district."

Despite declining enrollment and a loss of more than 2,300 teachers from L.A. Unified's teaching force over the last six years, the number of administrators in the district has increased slightly. There were 785 non-school-based administrators in the district in 2014-15; by last school year, there were 905 in the district.

When King presented these numbers to school board members during a May retreat, Ratliff was particularly irked.

"Nobody loves bureaucracy," Ratliff said in an interview late Friday. "If we can find a way to make L.A. Unified work better for everyone, I think that’s going to benefit the school sites. It’s going to benefit the central office."

During that meeting in May, King said these numbers reflect some centrally-administered initiatives whose staff members are out at school sites, specifically citing the district's restorative justice programs.

"To think — as I was a teacher and a policymaker — that the only people who are valuable to your children are the classroom teachers is a big mistake … and the only place there’s bureaucracy is not just downtown," said Tokofsky. "There’s bureaucracy at high school campuses."

Tokofsky said L.A. Unified leadership needed to come up with more creative ways to create revenue rather than responding to tightening resources through creative cutting.

"There’s no reinventing," he added later, "that comes out of a cataclysmic cut."

Another factor at play in the alchemy of L.A. Unified's budget: a decision by the California Department of Education which would require the district to redirect $450 million into targeted programs for "targeted student populations" — low-income, homeless and foster kids — in the 2017-18 budget year.

The district plans to challenge the decision. Reilly said the decision is unrelated to the 30 percent cost-cutting exercise.

The memo, which informs school board members that central office department heads are being asked to submit their cost-cutting ideas, does note that managers are not being asked to cut from programs serving these targeted populations.

Reilly said the central office's cost-reduction ideas will be factored into the district's 2017-18 budget-making process. The initial phases of that process begin in November.