L.A. Unified budget to shift millions to needy students

L.A. Board of Education is expected to vote on new $6.64-billion budget

The Los Angeles Board of Education is set to vote Tuesday on a landmark budget that shifts hundreds of millions of new dollars to the district’s neediest students.

Buoyed by more state dollars from a voter-approved tax hike and recovering economy, the general fund would increase from $6.2 billion last year to $6.64 billion in fiscal year 2014-15. The budget includes $3.6 billion for all students and an additional $838 million for those who are low-income, learning English or in foster care.

It is based on the state’s ground-breaking school finance law, approved last year, that gives districts more dollars for disadvantaged youth and more local control on how to spend them.

L.A. Unified proposes to spend the money to reduce class sizes, hire more library aides, counselors and teachers, increase tutoring and boost parent education efforts, among other things.

"We have a historic opportunity to ensure all of our students graduate college-prepared and career-ready, by allocating our resources in an equitable manner," L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said in a statement this month.

But the proposed budget does not include pay raises for teachers – an omission that drew criticism from United Teachers Los Angeles. The union also said in a statement that the budget "does not go far enough" to reduce class sizes or increase counselors, nurses, librarians and other key professionals.

The budget "fails to address salary restoration and a fair salary increase for teachers and health and human services professionals who have not had a pay raise in more than seven years and who took pay cuts amounting to eight percent," the union said in a statement.

Community groups also voiced some reservations. Some urged that part of the $13 million for school police should be used instead to hire more counselors trained in alternative disciplinary practices known as restorative justice. At present, the budget provides for only five restorative justice counselors for the nation’s second-largest school system with more than 1,000 campuses.

Still, Deasy has proposed a $21-million increase for more counselors, nurses, custodians and other targeted support to improve campus climates, reduce suspensions by 5% and increase attendance by 6%.

Nearly $10 million is proposed to help the district’s 11,604 foster youth, who suffer from the lowest academic achievement of all student groups. The budget plan calls for more tutoring, counselors and psychiatric social workers to give students a comprehensive academic assessment and help them craft a graduation plan.

For the 154,110 students learning English, Deasy has proposed $21.7 million for more instructional coaches, teacher training and other support services. His plan aims to increase their graduation rates by 3% and boost the number of students moving to full English proficiency by 2%.

Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, an East Los Angeles nonprofit, said her community members had hoped for more ambitious goals for students learning English and more resources to educate and involve parents.

But she called the budget a good first step and hailed the unprecedented community involvement in the budget process. To solicit community feedback as required by the state law, the district held about 100 meetings and received more than 10,000 responses from them and online.

In response to community calls to give more dollars to needy schools, Deasy pledged to do so through an "equity-based index" that ranks campuses according to their number of disadvantaged students. He included the district’s 14,000 homeless students among them, going beyond the state law.

"What made the last few months historic and unique is that the community has risen to the occasion and really weighed in," Brenes said. "I think our concerns have been considered."

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