Editorial: L.A. Unified faces a rocky financial future no matter what happens with its contract talks
Labor relations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union are at a testy point. Contract negotiations are deadlocked, according to the state’s Public Employee Relations Board, and United Teachers Los Angeles is in the midst of a strike authorization vote.
It’s a long way from strike authorization to a strike; such votes are a common way for unions to pressure management. Still, this year’s negotiations, which actually started in 2017, are especially fraught. Declining enrollment and rising employee benefit costs threaten a financial crunch so severe, one analysis projects the district will be $400 million in the red in three years.
Teachers are understandably frustrated by large class sizes that have been reduced only slightly in recent years, and they seek a higher raise than other school unions have gotten. They want the district to use its reserves to make that happen; the district counters with financial forecasts showing that it’s going to need that money in two years.
L.A. Unified has to compete in order to attract and keep qualified teachers.
Meanwhile, Supt. Austin Beutner strongly emphasizes that decisions must be guided by what’s good “for the kids.” That’s true, but a crucial part of that equation is the ability to attract and retain excellent teachers, because nothing is better “for the kids” than a strong instructional staff. College graduates have more job options than they did several years ago, and L.A. Unified has to compete in order to attract and keep qualified teachers.
The teachers union also wants more say on whether and how charter schools will be allocated space on L.A. Unified campuses. The sharing of facilities often has been uncomfortable. It wants teachers to decide which standardized tests are given to their students beyond the ones required by state or federal law. And it wants teachers at each school to have veto power over whether a school will be converted into a magnet program with a specialized theme, such as medical studies, and for all teachers to be able to keep their jobs after conversion.
But decisions about the use of school facilities and magnet programs are rightly made by management. Among the district’s stronger-performing schools, magnets have been a positive force in L.A. Unified, keeping families from leaving for charter schools. The union has reservations because teachers must reapply for their jobs when a school converts, and sometimes the openings are more specialized. But magnets provide a popular choice while keeping funding within the district, and keeping and growing magnet programs is clearly about making decisions for the benefit of students.
As for standardized tests, the district has to reserve the right to require and choose them, but it should be giving the teachers — the educators at the front lines — considerable voice in the matter. Mandates from on high don’t always play out well in classrooms, and teachers are the ones who see that.
That of course leaves the biggest issue: money. Where L.A. Unified managers see a prudent reserve, union leaders see an untapped reservoir that could be used for salary increases and generous benefits packages.
L.A. Unified’s finances have always been a murky business that few people have claimed to understand fully (this is a situation that Beutner has rightly said he intends to change). It’s difficult for any outsider, including this editorial board, to say yes, the district can afford to do this, or no, it can’t. When it comes to the end stage of labor negotiations, everyone draws lines in the sand, then moves them around to reach a compromise.
What is certain is that the district faces rocky financial times ahead unless it tightens its belt considerably or finds new infusions of money. It’s a problem that won’t go away no matter how many concessions one side or the other wins in the current negotiations.
Long term, it makes more sense for the teachers union and the district to work together on building a persuasive case in favor of a parcel tax, which the district may ask voters to approve in two years. That means reducing administrative costs and streamlining many of the district’s bureaucratic entanglements. It means coming up with a sustainable long-term plan for benefits that wouldn’t require additional tax measures every few years. And it should include some bold new accomplishments that excite the public about the future of L.A. Unified.
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