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More Light on Schools Budget

It’s always the same fight. The teachers union claims the Los Angeles Unified School District has plenty of money, certainly enough to pay for both higher salaries and classroom improvements. The district’s top financial staff claims there’s no extra money. But the murky, confusing LAUSD budget process never seems to shed any light on how much money is really available. This year, however, there are some small but welcome changes in the budget-delving.

The LAUSD’s present budget tops $6.5 billion, but the salary tug of war focuses on about $70 million that remained on the table after most fiscal decisions had been made. United Teachers-Los Angeles and its allies on the school board wish to reserve enough to give teachers, and by extension all other school district employees, a second raise this year. Each 1% increase would cost $27 million, and the teachers union seeks 4% on top of the 10% over three years agreed to in the current contract.

Supt. Ruben Zacarias rightly wants to spend nearly every dollar on improving instruction. But the ultimate decision will be made by a majority of the school board, some of whose members are closely allied with the union.

The best thing to come of this contest was a decision Tuesday to have accountants go to work analyzing the budget during an eight-day cooling-off period. The LAUSD staff, an accountant hired by the teachers union and an independent expert accepted by both sides will try to ferret out the truth in an ever-changing financial picture.

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In past years, the LAUSD’s bottom line always seemed to change, sometimes from week to week, as more pots of money suddenly became available or were shifted from other uses. Some uncertainty routinely resulted from state budget delays, new legislation like the class-size reduction initiative, false assumptions, ubiquitous cost overruns and the inability to get clear and definitive answers on money matters from district staff during school board meetings. The lack of information frustrated employees convinced that the budget was a financial shell game influenced by political considerations. But the district’s longtime chief financial officer has retired and the new chief administrator, David Koch, seems willing to let more sunshine and less politics into the process.

The budget study will be time and money well spent, no matter what its findings, if the investigation ushers in a new era of financial openness in the school district.


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