LA Unified board members approve $7.6 billion budget, some staff cuts

FILE: Los Angeles Unified Board President Steve Zimmer and other members of the board approved a list of traits that it wants in the next district superintendent.
FILE: Los Angeles Unified Board President Steve Zimmer and other members of the board approved a list of traits that it wants in the next district superintendent.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Los Angeles Unified School Board members unanimously approved a $7.6 billion budget for the upcoming school year on Tuesday, targeting relatively small amounts of that sum for expanding preschool and restorative justice programs, reducing class sizes and increasing access to elective courses in needy schools.

"We are investing on a — not equal, but equitable basis. That’s what you need to close the achievement gap," Superintendent Michelle King said before the board's unanimous consent vote on the budget Tuesday night. "This budget leads us on the path to eliminate that."

Despite declining enrollments and soaring pension costs, district officials stitched together a balanced budget with the help of $218.3 million officials had squirreled away last year, $183.4 million the district didn't spend last year and another $23 million in extra revenues that materialized in the state budget.

Officials also expect to save $11 million by laying off, letting go or reassigning 105 administrators, clerks, aides, parent liaisons and other positions funded out of the district's central office.

Board member Mónica García said the budget represented a positive step toward addressing inequities within the district.

"It is right for some of our allies to look at what we’ve done and question; question the quality and controls across the system," García said. "But no doubt we have improved our services across the system."

Notices went out to those employees last week, according to L.A. Unified Personnel Director Karla Gould, though she said it's possible some of those employees might be able to find other jobs in the district.

But one unanswered question already looms large: will L.A. Unified be forced to shift more than $245 million into targeted programs for foster children, English Learners and low-income students?

Advocacy groups have argued a district accounting practice has underfunded services for these students. While California Department of Education officials say they don't necessarily agree with the advocates' assessment that the district was shortchanging these programs, they have ruled the district must either change or justify the bookkeeping practice that led to the dispute.

District officials are currently challenging the state's ruling. If their challenge is successful, their budgets will be balanced through 2019. If it's not successful, L.A. Unified budget-makers estimate the district's deficit will grow to more than $570 million in in 2018-19.

Board member Richard Vladovic bemoaned what he characterized as the state's underfunding of K-12 education as the root of fiscal problems facing the district.

"I just have to look to Sacramento and say, 'You have frustrated me again, and again, and again.' Because we know what our community deserves and we know what our children need," Vladovic said.

"We argue over the crumbs, at least in my opinion," he added. "We’re all frustrated."