Setting the Record Straight: An Education Expert Resurfaces Independent Report to Explain Los Angeles Schools’ Fiscal Turmoil

L.A. Unified

The financial state of the nation’s second-largest school district in Los Angeles can be convoluted and complex. But it’s important to read up, as the conversation on how much money the district has continues to swap out facts for politics, education expert Robin Lake said.

Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, resurfaced a 2015 independent finance report commissioned by former L.A. Unified superintendent Ramón Cortines, summarizing its findings in a tweet string. The nonpartisan report attributed L.A. Unified’s money troubles to factors including “a significant structural deficit,” California’s low (albeit disputed) rank nationally in per-pupil funding, ballooning health care and pension costs, a disproportionate number of administrators, and declining student enrollment due not only to charters — which are increasingly being blamed for traditional public schools’ plight — but also birth rate declines, dropouts and transfers out of the district.

“If people are going to be weighing in … I think there’s a responsibility to take a look at what the facts are,” said Lake, who tweeted on the report during January’s teacher strike. “People have been pretty quick to point fingers.”

Though there has been “a long string of reports” on L.A. Unified’s finances, the 2015 report is reputable because the commission that produced it was “much more” nonpartisan and is not tied to the district’s current superintendent, Charles Kerchner, professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University, told LA School Report in an email earlier this year. Superintendent Austin Beutner is a former businessman who was frequently disparaged by United Teachers Los Angeles before and during January’s teacher strike.

The report’s findings, which Kerchner called “relatively clean,” remain relevant in 2019.

The district’s updated budget and fiscal stabilization plan, unveiled last month, highlighted L.A. Unified’s deepening reliance on new funding — especially after it approved a new teacher contract in January that adds $840 million to its bills through 2021. Although L.A. Unified ended this past school year with a record nearly $2 billion in reserves, projections show that cushion near depletion by 2021. Without new funding, the district would be at risk of a county takeover. Officials are currently banking on a parcel tax on the ballot in June, and increased state funding, to help the district stay afloat in the coming years.

“I have a lot of sympathy for paying teachers what they’re worth, and teachers have hard jobs. I don’t want to dismiss that reality,” Lake said. “But it’s a common tactic for districts to take the politically expedient route of settling a contract with numbers they can’t afford. … And ultimately, kids will pay the price for it.”

Here is Lake’s tweet string:

Read the full 2015 Report of the Independent Financial Review Panel here.

For more about how L.A. Unified could pay for the contract, read our latest article:

The L.A. teacher strike may be over, but observers warn there’s no ‘clear path forward’ for how the school district can afford its new contract

And here are some of our previous articles on the district’s finances:

First Budget Update Since Los Angeles Approved Its Teachers Contract Shows It Needs New Funding to Stay Solvent in 2 Years

Experts: Crippling long-term debt isn’t leaving L.A. schools much wiggle room to avert a teacher strike — and may doom the district to takeover

‘Painful truth’: 9 numbers haunting LAUSD as strike continues

LAUSD could lose control of its finances if it agrees to a teachers contract that depletes reserves, county warns

LAUSD’s plan to stave off financial ruin and a potential county takeover: Cut 15 percent of central office staff and save $86 million

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