The Los Angeles Unified School District is California’s largest public school system and mired in union squabbles, embezzlement scandals and hiring problems. Add to this the skyrocketing student drop-out rate, and it is no surprise that the L.A. mayor takes a stand. Question is: what took him so long?
LAUSD Facts and Figures
To say that the Los Angeles Unified School District is a beast of huge proportions is an understatement. According to the LAUSD, its 2009 to 2010 operating budget is $7.3 billion. With 80 percent of its K-12 funding coming from the cash-strapped state that is California, and with homeowners refusing to see their property taxes go up year after year, the economic downturn has led to fiscal shortfalls in the budgets of Los Angeles schools.
With the L.A. school system mired in union refusals to accept pay cuts, pension cuts or increases in insurance premiums, the Los Angeles Unified School District proclaims that “its hands are tied” by the somewhat Byzantine way of being funded. Not surprisingly, administrators were once again looking to the taxpayer to make up shortfalls.
In June, 2010 the LAUSD placed Measure E on the ballot, which gave Angelenos the option of paying $100 a year more in property taxes for a duration of approximately four years. (Keep in mind, this tax increase had been kicked around since the middle of 2009.)
Measure E Nixed
Even as the LAUSD portrayed Measure E as a pulling together of the community for the greater good – and for the kids! – the voters were not buying what the school district was selling. The Los Angeles Times reported that voters failed to approve Measure E (it failed to receive two thirds of the vote required) in part because a) Angelenos are just as cash-strapped as the LAUSD and b) residents are eyeing Los Angeles school budgeting with distrust.
Considering that of the possible $90 million raised only about $10 million would have gone to hiring and keeping teaching staff while a whopping $27 million could be used by schools on discretionary budgets, voters chose to keep their $100 a year for personal use. For a legislature that has adopted a hands-off policy when it comes to legislating anything that could bring the ire of unions onto the city council in general or the mayor in particular, this now presented a rather unattractive Catch-22.
Fast Forwarding to October, 2010: Los Angeles Mayor Forced to Act
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is notorious for his unwillingness to offend his biggest backers (the unions) and he remembers well what happened when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offended the nurses’ union. Even so, the out-of-control Los Angeles Unified School District made the proverbial buck stop at his desk.
Earlier this month, as outlined by the San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Villaraigosa announced that the school board would have to make reform efforts “with or without the support from the teachers’ union.” This signals a major break in the long-held power structure that protected the Los Angeles Unified School District from reforms that would counter union philosophy.
On the chopping block is a seniority-based layoff model that kept on some tenured lemons while newer (and potentially highly talented) educators were let go.
Drop in the Bucket?
I must confess that I have little faith in the proposed reforms of the L.A. school system. It is an unwieldy behemoth that is beset by low-level fraud – the L.A. County District Attorney just issued a press release identifying a LAUSD administrative assistant, who embezzled between $65,000 and $100,000 from the school district — and money-saving quick fixes that raise eyebrows. Its latest notion is the use of biometrics for the verification of school lunch eligibility.
As a parent, I cannot help but wonder why the Los Angeles Unified School District will not undergo a system-wide audit to ferret out waste and fraud, radically change its hiring and firing practices and learn to operate within its means – much like Angelenos have to do.
LAUSD: “LAUSD Budget Realities”
AC: “Embattled LAUSD to Raise Los Angeles Property Taxes in Spite of Proposition 13”
Los Angeles Times: “No on the parcel tax”
San Francisco Chronicle: “LA mayor says reforms to LAUSD will move ahead”
Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office: “Former LAUSD Official Charged with Embezzlement”
Contra Costa Times: “LAUSD to use fingerprint scans for school lunches”