Editorial: Finally, more than enough money for L.A.’s students. But where should it go?

Students in front of Hamilton High School.
Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been a long time since anyone was able to say, “Enough funding for L.A. schools? No problem!” Between bountiful federal rescue money and a bulging state budget, Los Angeles Unified School District is awash in billions of new dollars to help its mostly low-income students regain the education that was lost during the pandemic. Spending will increase from $17,000 per pupil to $24,000. That’s huge.

The expenditures in the $20-billion budget, adopted this week, are a little vague right now, but that’s easy to understand. Things are less predictable in these waning days of the pandemic. Still, it will be important for L.A. Unified to refine its intentions soon and be completely transparent about where the dollars are going. The school year begins in August. There’s not much time.

Some of the expenditures are clearly marked and clearly needed. Maintenance problems at district schools already were the subject of considerable parent and student complaints. Now, with the need to keep coronavirus infections to a minimum, extra janitorial services and fix-it crews are a basic necessity.

Big new expenditures for additional math and reading instructional time for elementary school students also show real promise. Additional mental health services? Absolutely.

But the new budget takes a lot for granted. It calls for massive new hiring of permanent counselors to help with the trauma students have experienced since the pandemic began early last year, but it fails to take into account two crucial elements: No one thinks there are enough qualified counselors around to take these jobs right away, and though the district needs more counselors, the urgency caused by the pandemic will fall off — and, probably, so will the district’s funding. It will cause tremendous disruption if mass layoffs are needed down the road.

A better idea might have been to make some of these hires but fill in other positions with help from outside agencies, while training existing staff, especially teachers and aides, to respond sensitively to students on a day-in, day-out basis. Similarly, the call for a nurse at every school doesn’t take into account the differing needs at various campuses and the fact that nurses are likely to be in short supply.

Beyond elementary schools, the district has not put the same level of structure and funding toward extra instructional time for older students. Thousands of them are almost certainly in need of intensive help catching up on what remote learning didn’t teach them. On this front, the budget is less generous and its intentions are unclear. Exactly who will deliver this instruction and in what form?

As the district’s budget expert said, L.A. Unified faces a structural deficit. The number of students is falling off, which almost certainly means less funding at some point in the future. That shouldn’t have to mean a sudden fall-off of services. This one-time pot of money should include a very large rainy-day fund to keep important services flowing with as little disruption as possible in years to come.