L.A. school board authorizes lawsuits over governor’s budget plan, meal-program costs

Workers prepare meal bags for distribution at Garfield High School in East L.A.
Meal bags are assembled for distribution to families at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. School district officials are considering litigation in efforts to get reimbursed by state and local agencies for food provided to the community.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday agreed to authorize litigation against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to reopen schools and, separately, to file litigation to recover the costs of providing free meals to adults in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board on Tuesday also passed a resolution that formally expressed the district’s dissatisfaction over the level of funding assistance from other government agencies.

The board vote, taken during a closed-session meeting, does not commit the Los Angeles Unified School District to legal action, but it provides the superintendent with a tool for leverage without having to return to the board a second time for permission to file suit, said a district spokesperson.


“Efforts to seek support from both county and state government agencies tasked with regional emergency response in Los Angeles have as yet gone unanswered,” said Shannon Haber. “We hope to avoid the need to seek legal action.”

If pursued, the litigation would be part of L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner’s ongoing efforts to obtain funds to help the nation’s second-largest school system foot the cost of reopening campuses, keeping them safe and addressing learning losses resulting from the pandemic.

The school board felt compelled to act even though California — unlike some other states — rejected budget cuts for education this year and will increase education spending next year. Also, the school district is estimated to receive about $1.2 billion in recently approved federal coronavirus aid — on top of nearly $900 million in such aid from earlier in the year. The size of the federal aid is based on the large number of students from low-income families among the 465,000 enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said students would have to be vaccinated to return to campus once a vaccine is available for them. But that doesn’t rule out an earlier return in the meantime.

Jan. 11, 2021

District officials have argued that more is needed, because low-income and Black and Latino families have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, related economic hardships and inadequate at-home learning conditions, such as inconsistent internet access.

L.A. Unified campuses have been closed since March 2020.

A primary target of the district’s frustration is Newsom’s just-released plan to offer grants to reopen campuses from a proposed $2-billion fund. Beutner’s concern is that the money won’t be available to school systems that are unable to reopen right away because of the pandemic, which has surged to crisis levels in L.A. County.

Newsom has insisted that money will be reserved for school districts facing this dilemma, but L.A. school officials are not persuaded.


“Rather than prioritizing the low-income and Black and brown communities that have been devastated by COVID-19, this plan would harm those very communities,” said school board President Kelly Gonez.

Beutner also wants to press the state to pick up the cost of the district’s in-house $150-million coronavirus testing program. L.A. Unified moved far ahead of other districts in creating a testing program, and Beutner doesn’t want the school system to lose out because it fronted these costs rather than waiting for a state-funded effort.

The announcement of the unanimous vote to authorize the second lawsuit — over funding for meals — did not indicate whom L.A. Unified intended to sue.

Later comments during the public meeting by board member Jackie Goldberg suggested that possible targets could include Los Angeles County and the federal government, which has committed to pay for meals that schools provide to students.

L.A. Unified, however, wants to be reimbursed for an estimated $100 million in meals for adults. The district has provided meals to anyone who asks for them since campuses closed.

Goldberg said it is her understanding that the district hit a bureaucratic wall. As a condition for the meal funding, she said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency required county participation — and possibly county funding. She said county officials “have their own needs, so they’re not interested in doing that.”


The board’s resolution directs Beutner “to pursue all advocacy efforts to prevent the disproportionate impact of the Governor’s Plan on students of Los Angeles Unified.”

It also calls for an accelerated “COVID relief plan from local and state government officials to drive down COVID case rates in high-needs communities to enable local schools to open.”