L.A. Now

With little left to trim, L.A. Unified needs to fight for more money

Ray Cortines, the outgoing superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, told me a story recently. An acquaintance of his was riding up in the elevator with two school employees who were discussing the recent budget cuts.

When Cortines' name came up, one of the employees said to the other: "He's the Butcher of Beaudry."

Cortines cites the incident as proof that he's made painful cuts. But is that accurate? Did Cortines, who's wrapping up his 21/2-year tenure and heading off into retirement, really take a cleaver to the district? And if so, were the cuts he made the right ones? Are students paying an unnecessary price in the classroom?

I ask because every time I write about L.A. Unified's budget mess and teacher layoffs, readers insist classroom jobs could be saved if the district instead cut administrative fat, reduced the pay and perks of administrators and fired the freeloaders. A.J. Duffy, outgoing president of the teachers union, has made a career for himself tossing those grenades.

Historically, there would have been a lot of truth to such arguments. When it comes to sloth, inefficiency and excess, LAUSD, like a lot of huge public bureaucracies, has had more than a few championship seasons.

The administrative staff and budget ballooned in the middle of the last decade. This is also the district that staggered through the Belmont boondoggle and the employee payroll scandal, each of which wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.

But things have changed a bit. Cortines, who complained early on of assistants reporting to assistants, really has swung a cleaver, both at headquarters and in the schools.

Not that he had much choice.

Temporary funding sources have dried up, state funding to LAUSD has been snipped by $1,100 per pupil since 2009 and the district has lost thousands of employees while shrinking its budget by $1.5 billion since the 2008-09 school year.

When I asked to have a closer look at the numbers, I ended up in the office of finance director Megan Reilly, perusing the tally. According to Reilly, the budget for running the central administration has gone from $644 million five years ago to a projected $305 million in the coming fiscal year. The budget for running regional district offices during that same time has gone from $54.7 million to $23.2 million. Millions in savings have come from reducing the number of leased offices and consolidating employees in district-owned properties.

Since the 2007-08 school year, 717 management positions have been eliminated, a 25% reduction. In addition, Anita M. Ford, the personnel director, told me that 10,746 classified (non-teaching) employees have been laid off or seen their wages, hours or status reduced.

Is there still some fat on the bone? Cortines himself said more streamlining has to be done. But even with student enrollment gradually dipping, he said, the nation's second-largest school district can't serve its 730 campuses and nearly 700,000 students without a central support staff for purchasing, accounting, policing, human resources, maintenance and other non-classroom duties.

School board member Tamar Galatzan recently told me she often hears people say you could balance the LAUSD budget by cutting out the administrative fat.

"I tell them to tell me where the fat is and I will cut it, but you could eliminate the entire district headquarters and not save enough to balance the budget," Galatzan said.

True or false?

It's true.

Without the temporary tax extensions Gov. Jerry Brown supports, K-12 education could take an additional $5-billion cut. If so, Reilly says, LAUSD's budget gap could be as high as $600 million or more, or twice the projected cost of the central office budget alone.

More than 7,000 layoff notices have been sent out, including 5,000 to teachers. We're a long way from knowing how many, if any, will actually lose their jobs. But things don't look good at the moment, and the district has already lost more than 5,000 teaching positions since 2007-08.

LAUSD, once fat and sloppy, has slimmed down, no doubt. But that doesn't mean the district is healthier. The loss of thousands of teachers, with more to follow, is nothing less than a tragedy. Might the teachers union be willing to make a deal on furlough days and benefits to save some of its own?

The job of assistant principal is becoming obsolete. Next year, Reilly's staff told me, only 12 of the more than 500 elementary schools will have an assistant principal. Class sizes will continue to grow. Support staff will continue to shrink. And students will continue to pay a price.

The situation has former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky puzzled. "Where is the fight?" he asks.

Tokofsky wasn't done asking questions.

Why isn't the district screaming about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's efforts to hold on to redevelopment authority money the governor wanted to redirect to schools?

Why isn't the board mobilizing the magnet school parents with word of the class size increases and the ultimate end of magnets in two years?

Why are the charters silent on the crisis of public education?

If leaner is meaner, indeed, where is the fight?

The challenge for incoming Supt. John Deasy and the board won't be merely what to cut, but how to survive.

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