Playing the blame game at the LAUSD

The Los Angeles Unified School District is on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory. The teachers union is threatening to go on strike. If common sense and reason don’t prevail, it’ll be bad news for students, parents and taxpayers across the state.

The bleak fiscal condition of the nation’s second-largest school district has long been evident.

In June, the L.A. Unified Advisory Task Force, made up of local leaders in labor, business and education, put things quite clearly.

“L.A. Unified is facing a structural budget deficit which threatens its long-term viability and its ability to deliver basic education programs,” the task force observed. “The District’s own forecasts show it will have exhausted its reserve fund balance by 2020-21, will have a budget deficit of $400 million in 2020-21, and therefore be insolvent.”

Such warnings are consistent with what a similar panel commissioned by then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines warned about in 2015.

On Aug. 21, Dr. Candi Clark, the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s chief financial officer, offered another similar assessment before the LAUSD school board.

“The fact is that LAUSD is not too big to fail, so it is up to all of us to resolve the district’s fiscal challenges,” she said.

How the district got itself into this mess is not really a mystery. It has spent without regard and has proven incapable of right-sizing the district to better align revenues with expenditures.

It isn’t as if the district treats its employees poorly. The average teacher salary in Los Angeles is $75,000, with $110,000 in total compensation. On top of that, the district offers generous health benefits. For context, whereas San Francisco Unified spent $1,519 per student on health benefits in 2016-17, LAUSD spent $1,968 per student.

It is in this context that the Los Angeles Unified is negotiating with the United Teachers Los Angeles. One issue it is certainly correct on: High school class sizes, about 40 per teacher per hour, are too big. But on others, like the fact that LAUSD is already offering UTLA a raise, it’s not enough, apparently.

Just 10 days after Clark warned the district wasn’t too big to fail, the United Teachers Los Angeles announced its members had voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if the union doesn’t get more.

For years, union President Alex Caputo-Pearl has laid the foundations for a strike, saying in 2016, “The next year and a half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018.”

But rather than work in the best interests of students, the UTLA has long sought to put the blame for the district’s fiscal problems on others. Charter schools have received particular blame. It is an increasingly common tactic of teachers unions across the state.

Charter supporters have been smeared as mere puppets of billionaire privatizers, while UTLA has thrown around rhetoric like “the war over public schools is a class war” in a cynical bid to cloak its negotiation efforts as merely protecting public education.

The truth is that the Los Angeles Unified School District cannot afford to continue down this unsustainable path. The failure of LAUSD and other districts to stand up for fiscal responsibility will only imperil students and taxpayers in the long-run.

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