Two Los Angeles Unified School Board members are floating an idea to study whether the district can move out of its current central office building.
But the proposal to examine if the district could sell or rent out its downtown headquarters underlies a larger aim: the board members are trying to stoke a broader conversation about downsizing L.A. Unified's central office budget.
Board members will vote Tuesday on a resolution ordering district staff to study "the feasibility of gradually reducing and reallocating staff based in the administrative headquarters" to L.A. Unified's various regional offices and campuses — reductions that could, at least in theory, free up funds for individual school principals to spend.
These cuts would also free up physical space in L.A. Unified's current downtown headquarters on South Beaudry Ave., so as part of the study, district officials would explore whether it makes sense to sell or lease the 918,000-square foot building, often simply referred to as "Beaudry."
School board member Ref Rodriguez, who's co-sponsoring the resolution with board member Mónica Ratliff, stresses the study is not so much the first step in a real estate transaction as it is the beginning of a discussion about L.A. Unified's bureaucracy.
"There’s a perception the public that this district is all overhead, it’s administration, it’s centralization, it’s no local control — and that building has become the symbol of … what was wrong with the district in the past," Rodriguez said.
But Rodriguez adds the district has been trying to move away from that. Superintendent Michelle King has said she wants to "decentralize" L.A. Unified and grant more money and control to individual schools.
In August, King asked the heads of central office departments to figure out how they would cut their budgets by 30 percent as part of a "cost-cutting exercise." At the time, the drill rubbed school board president Steve Zimmer the wrong way; he said there's a difference between asking central office departments to reinvent themselves to better-serve students and trying to hit an ambitious cost-cutting target.
Rodriguez said Tuesday's resolution attempts to live up to the essence Zimmer's critique, forcing district officials to look past easy budget cuts and consider more fundamental changes, such as "closing all vacant positions in the administrative headquarters" and moving staff out of the Beaudry building.
"Because of declining enrollment, we have to elegantly contract," Rodriguez said. "This is a step in that process."
Some might quibble with the conclusion the district must shrink. Former school board member David Tokofsky is among the most vocal watchdogs who have argued L.A. Unified needs to find more creative ways to boost its revenue rather than cut first.
Zimmer said Friday he does feel the district needs to view Democratic supermajority control in Sacramento as an opportunity to boost the district's revenue. He also said he will vote in favor of the resolution, but stressed its exploratory nature.
"The intent of the resolution is to get information, and that is never a bad thing," Zimmer said. "And in this case, could be a very positive thing, and I don't think we should immediately make the assumption that this is going to mean a tectonic shift in our resource distribution."
Selling or leasing out space in the district's Beaudry headquarters, where more than 3,700 employees currently work, is yet another fraught topic.
L.A. Unified's school board approved the purchase of the building in 2001, selling more than $184.2 million in bonds to finance the transaction. Before interest, the district still has $132.4 million outstanding on those bonds, according to district spokeswoman Elvia Perez Cano.
Even before L.A. Unified employees began moving to the building in 2002, district officials knew the building had problems. The building's floors were uneven or too weak to support heavy equipment, requiring what then-Inspector General Don Mullinax estimated would be another $60 million in repairs, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times' archives.
The floors are still uneven today, although it's not clear how much — if at all — this would impact the building's value in a sale or lease; Cano said L.A. Unified officials "determined that the building was structurally sound and leveling of floors was not necessary."
Rodriguez said the building is "a huge asset for this district that should be used, whether it's sold or used in another way that generates revenue."
"The building does have vacancy," he added. "There are open places in the building. As we decentralize more, there's going to be more and more vacancy."
The resolution up for a vote Tuesday calls for the district to complete the feasibility study by April — a short timeline, Rodriguez acknowledged.
But that also would mean district officials would complete the report as the district's budget-writing process is kicking into high gear.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the outstanding principal balance of the bonds L.A. Unified issued to pay for the building; it's $132.4 million, not $134.4 million.