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L.A. schools have bigger problems than a looming teachers strike

L.A. schools have bigger problems than a looming teachers strike
Students on the first day of school at Dolores Huerta Elementary School in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

The looming possibility of a teachers strike is certainly a major challenge facing the Los Angeles Unified School District. But it isn’t the biggest one.

LAUSD’s finances are in a perilous state, and, despite repeated warnings, school officials and civic leaders have ignored the situation for far too long.

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The district, as the teachers union has pointed out, does have a reserve fund of close to $2 billion. These funds could definitely help in reaching a settlement with the union. However, the existence of the reserve can’t make up for the fact that LAUSD currently spends about half a billion dollars more each year than it takes in, according to a recent analysis. Without painful corrective action, its financial situation will worsen considerably over the next few years.

The deficit is caused in part by rising pension costs (which shouldn’t have come as a surprise since they have been forecast for at least two decades). Higher special education costs and declining student enrollment due to charter school expansion and demographic shifts have also played a role. There are no quick or easy fixes for these problems.

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In 2015, then-Supt. Ray Cortines assembled a blue-ribbon committee to conduct an objective analysis of the district’s finances and to make recommendations for how projected deficits should be addressed.

The report’s conclusions were stark: “The expanding gap represents a serious challenge to the LAUSD’s financial stability in the near term, one that insists upon immediate action today.” It warned that immediate and difficult measures would be required if the district hoped to continue adequately serving its students beyond the 2019-20 school year, noting that “failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD, and the loss of local governance authority that comes from state takeover.”

Similar warnings have been issued more recently by both the county and state education departments.

The district’s leadership has made some attempts to address its fiscal challenges, but so far, no long-term solutions have been embraced. It is becoming increasingly clear that the district’s problems are too great to be solved by the superintendent or the school board alone.

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Unfortunately, many of those who should help — the mayor, community activists and local business, religious, foundation and university leaders — have sat silent on the sidelines. They need to engage. As the district and United Teachers of Los Angeles debate how to resolve the current impasse, L.A.’s civic leaders must come together to help devise and support a financial plan to ensure the district can serve its students. This may require a local parcel tax or bond measure as well as additional state funding.

Why have civic leaders not become more involved up to now? Here’s a theory.

A few months after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to speak to a group of influential Angelenos about the need to invest in high quality after-school programs to support the well-being and development of children. During my remarks, I asked those present how many had attended a Los Angeles public school themselves. Most of those in the audience raised a hand. I then asked how many of them had children or grandchildren who were enrolled at district schools. Only a few hands went up.

This is huge problem. When those with power and influence are disconnected from the school system and more concerned with making preparations for the 2028 Olympics than they are with schools that serve most of the city’s children, we are in serious trouble.

The potential strike by teachers must be understood in this larger context. The teachers and their union have raised important and legitimate concerns, and the fiscal condition of the district does not negate the validity of their demands. The district must invest in its schools and its personnel if it hopes to have a future.

But it is also clear that the school district faces real financial duress. Without substantial state government assistance along with increased revenue from local sources, it is hard to imagine how the LAUSD will meet its fiscal challenge. Eventually, it will be forced to carry out painful cost reductions that will hurt teachers and kids.

Finding a solution is not just important for children. In addition to providing education to nearly 600,000 students, the school district is also the city’s largest employer.

L.A.’s social and economic infrastructure is at risk, and leadership is needed to address the district’s deficits in a thoughtful and strategic manner. Los Angeles cannot be a truly great city without a functioning school system that is embraced and supported at least as much as we support the Dodgers, Lakers or Rams.

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There is no more important issue for civic leaders to address than preserving the viability of public education for future generations.

Pedro Noguera is a professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and founder and faculty director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools.

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