Los Angeles School District Approves $7.8 Billion Budget for Next Year: Here’s What It Means for High-Needs Students, Lowest-Performing Schools and District Finances

L.A. Unified school board members Jackie Goldberg (left) and Richard Vladovic speak at a June 18 meeting. (L.A. Unified)

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report

L.A. Unified board members passed the 2019-20 budget and accountability plan last week — but not before acknowledging that they are “unintelligible” documents that provide little insight into specific program and funding changes as the nation’s second-largest school district looks to the next school year.

“None of the documents add up to anything you can count on,” board member Jackie Goldberg said, noting that she’d read “virtually every page” on three different occasions. “We need a new budget document that is useful, not only for us, but all of the public.

The $7.8 billion operating budget and Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) — a three-year plan updated annually that outlines the district’s goals and actions for improving student outcomeshave to be adopted by July 1, per state law. Because of the looming deadline, board members said they’d approve both documents now and spend this year exploring ways to improve them. The board’s approval came one week after parents blasted district leaders for the documents’ lack of transparency.

L.A. Unified struggled to get its fiscal house in order this year, receiving threats of a possible fiscal takeover by the county because of its shaky finances. The approved budget now shows L.A. Unified operating in the black for three years — a sharp departure from a March budget update that had estimated that the district’s ending balance in 2021-22 would fall $749 million short of required reserve levels if new revenues, such as a hoped-for parcel tax, didn’t materialize. Voters resoundingly rejected the tax earlier this month.

Before casting those votes during the marathon eight-hour session, the board also voted 4-3 to sunset the district’s contentious random student search policy by July 2020, following more than an hour of passionate testimony from parents, students and the community. Members approved a resolution as well opposing the California State University system’s recent proposal to add a fourth year of math or quantitative learning to admissions requirements. Speakers backing the resolution said CSU’s proposals would further limit college access to high-needs students.

Board member Richard Vladovic said that moving forward, there should be multiple sessions scheduled during the year to parse the upcoming year’s budget. L.A. Unified should “look at the outcomes we want in the district, and then we plan backwards,” he said.

LA School Report reviewed the budget, LCAP and other sources to try to discern what’s changing or staying the same from 2018-19 to 2019-20. Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about what to expect next year for high-needs students, teacher contract promises, lowest-performing schools and parent engagement efforts.

Funding and programs for high-needs students

Some key highlights:

1 Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) 2.0.

The district budget has set aside $262 million in 2019-20 to distribute funding to schools based on their rank in L.A. Unified’s revised Student Equity Needs Index, or “SENI 2.0.” The index considers school type — elementary, middle or high school — and factors such as asthma rates and injuries from gun violence, rather than just academic performance or income levels, when deciding where to channel the most money.

Next year’s SENI 2.0 allotment marks a sizable jump from the $25 million that was appropriated using the updated index in 2018-19. It’s not necessarily new money, however: The district told KPCC last year that it was distributing more than $240 million to schools using its old equity index.

How different factors are weighted in the SENI 2.0 index. (L.A. Unified)

All district schools except early-education centers and those for adult education will get funding through SENI, with schools ranking higher on the index receiving more. For example, an elementary school determined to be in the “lowest” SENI rank category could receive up to $386 extra per pupil, while a “highest” rank school could get $725 per pupil.

Breakdown of SENI funding based on school rank. (L.A. Unified)

The district’s LCAP confirms that no schools in 2019-20 will receive “less funding” through SENI 2.0 than they did in 2018-19. Schools next year will also have more flexibility over how they spend their SENI funds, so they can better “address locally determined needs” for their most vulnerable students, such as English learners.

2 English learners.

The district will continue to implement its Master Plan, which includes growing its dual-language programs, expanding the state Seal of Biliteracy award to the fifth and eighth grades, and “providing targeted supports for newcomers,” district spokeswoman Barbara Jones wrote in an email. L.A. Unified recently implemented a strategy to develop individualized reclassification plans for English learners, with the hope of switching them to a “Fluent English Proficient” categorization before they enter middle school.

The goal is to have 22 percent of English learners reclassify in 2019-20 — the same goal as in 2018-19. About a quarter of L.A. Unified’s roughly 486,000 students are English learners.

See which schools offer dual-language programs here. New programs are marked.

3 Special education students.

It was unclear to LA School Report from the budget and LCAP how programs and services are changing for special education students. A hearing on L.A. Unified’s special education plan and budget — which increased from $994 million to $1.03 billion for 2019-20was one of the last items on the agenda for the June 18 meeting, and it generated no board discussion. The district serves more than 60,000 special needs students.

Jones said four new schools — Vernon City, San Antonio and Hope elementary schools and Gage Middle School — are joining a pilot program that’s testing “inclusive practices,” which “means that students with disabilities are educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible,” she wrote. The program started in 2014-15 and had 50 school sites participating by 2018-19, according to the LCAP.

January’s teachers contract also called for the creation of a task force to study special education teacher caseloads, though a start date wasn’t included.

4 Foster youth. 

A key service for L.A. Unified foster youth, the Foster Youth Achievement Program,” is “not changing” in 2019-20, Jones said — though some advocates say that’s not entirely true.

The program focuses on boosting foster youth’s academic performance, largely through employing foster youth counselors. Jones said that “the goal for next year is to provide local, integrated, specialized support services” and ensure “that our students in foster care continue to be served effectively and consistently.”

The district has more than 7,000 students in foster care. The 2019-20 budget allocated about $15 million toward the program — a slight bump from the roughly $14.1 million in 2018-19.

However, at least six state and local advocacy groups, such as Advancement Project California and Children’s Defense Fund — California, claimed at two board meetings this month that the program is in fact being “restructured” in 2019-20 so that counselors initially dedicated to foster youth will now also serve homeless students, youth exiting the juvenile justice system and other at-risk groups at designated school sites. They said this will more than double the number of students assigned to each counselor, from about 70 students to about 150. That data came from calculating the number of foster youth versus counselors in 2018-19 and comparing it to updated caseload breakdown sheets that the district reportedly provided to counselors in May, advocates told LA School Report.

The district will “say they’re trying to do a whole-child approach that’s more integrated at the school site,” Ruth Cusick, an education rights lawyer for Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm that’s also following this development, told LA School Report. “That’s why we’ve shared the unique needs of foster youth and how impactful it has been to have this dedicated team to focus all of their expertise and all of their work for the success” of those students.

5 Funding from one lawsuit ends — and another is in its last year.

The Reed Investment Schools Program is “discontinued” as of June, according to the LCAP. The program — based on a 2014 settlement — has provided 37 middle schools and high schools across the district (listed here) additional supports to improve staff retention and student outcomes, such as assistant principals, extra counselors, mentor teachers, special education support providers and “unique” professional staff development opportunities.

This staffing has cost L.A. Unified about $26.8 million annually, according to the budget.

In 2019-20, Reed schools will be “receiving SENI 2.0 funding instead of receiving staffing and professional development,” Jones said. So while those positions will no longer be mandated, school leaders will have “flexibility” to utilize that SENI funding to retain staff hired through the Reed program if they choose to do so.

Meanwhile, 50 high-needs “innovation schools” (a list can be found here) will receive their last year of extra mandated funding following a 2015 lawsuit against the district. L.A. Unified has given about $50 million a year to these schools since 2017-18 to support new and expanded programs and services for low-income, English learner and foster students. ACLU of Southern California has noted, however, that only 38 percent of the $50 million allocated in 2018-19 was used. L.A. Unified will reabsorb any money that isn’t spent by June 30, 2020.

6 Miscellaneous and districtwide.

The district is lowering the minimum student enrollment required to receive a middle school assistant principal for counseling services. In 2019-20, middle schools with 700 or more students enrolled will get that assistant principal, compared with the 800-student threshold in 2018-19. There are no changes at the elementary and high school levels.

Arts programs, such as dance, general music and film, also appear to be unchanged going into 2019-20. See the programs offered at each L.A. Unified school here.

Teacher contract promises

The latest teachers contract, which was signed after the January strike and runs through 2021-22, is fully covered in the 2019-20 budget. Here are the additions expected:

● Average class sizes in grades 4 through 12 will be reduced by one student, bringing them back down to 2014-17 teachers contract levels. Average class sizes will be further reduced by an additional two students at 75 “targeted high needs” elementary schools and 15 middle schools. English and math classes in middle and high schools are also now capped at 39 students, per the contract. The cap pre-strike was 46 students, the teachers union has said.

● 150 new nurse positions. Where these nurses are placed will depend, for example, on how many students at a given school have diabetes or other “health-related issues,” Jones said. She added that campuses with athletic teams may also qualify for a school nurse based on the programs’ size.

● 41 new library positions in secondary schools. There won’t be a full-time librarian at every secondary school with a library this year, but the goal is to have one in each by the start of the 2020-21 year, Jones said.

 17 new counselor positions. Their placements will be determined to “maintain a secondary school counseling services ratio of 500:1,” Jones said.

A list of specific school sites receiving these support staff does not appear available yet.

There are no raises scheduled for 2019-20. Under the contract, teachers received a 3 percent raise retroactive to 2017-18 and another 3 percent in 2018-19.

Supports for lowest-performing schools

The district states in its LCAP that the following resources are being provided this summer and during the 2019-20 school year for “Comprehensive Support & Improvement (CSI)” schools — the 110 schools within L.A. Unified boundaries that were identified by the state early this year as struggling to adequately serve students.

1. Summer programs. The district is offering a four-week program that includes “focused academic intervention in English Language Arts or mathematics for academically at­-risk students in grades K­-8,” according to the LCAP. There is also a 24-day summer program for high schoolers running currently from June 19 to July 24 to “recover credits and make progress toward graduation.”

More information is available here and here.

2. Title I intervention program. School sites will receive per-pupil funding from the federal program that benefits high-poverty schools, allowing them flexibility to focus on math, English language arts or credit recovery based on students’ individual needs.

3. Social-emotional learning. L.A. Unified advisers or staff will identify and grow “age-appropriate” programs that — among other things — help students manage their emotions, establish positive relationships and set goals.

Of the 110 identified schools, 88 are district schools and 22 are charters. You can search for your school here or within this EdSource database.

Parent engagement efforts

Responding to a question about parent frustration over the current budget and LCAP, Jones said the district has “committed to … a more transparent process for the next school year.” She added later that Superintendent Beutner plans to meet with central parent committees such as the District English Learner Advisory Committee and Parent Advisory Committee quarterly “at a minimum” in 2019-20.

He’s met with them three times since becoming superintendent in May 2018, she noted.

For parents interested in getting more involved, 2019-20 also marks the first full year that parents can volunteer at a school without paying a $56 fee for fingerprinting and background checks after the board voted to waive the fee last November. More information is available here.

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