LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), working with community partners, will attempt again next year to pass a school funding ballot measure, Superintendent Austin Beutner said Thursday following his back-to-school address to administrators, district and union leaders, and parent advocates.
During the event, held at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Beutner expressed dismay at low voter turnout and the June failure of Measure EE, a parcel tax that would have provided an estimated $500 million for the district and paid for many of the future provisions agreed to in the contract that ended the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike in January. Following its strike, UTLA joined district leaders in support of the measure.
It’s also possible, Beutner said, that those planning to return to the voters, who he described as “the broadest, deepest, most-diverse coalition that has supported public education in a generation,” would seek a statewide measure.
“I think public education will be on the ballot,” he said. “If it’s a statewide initiative, expect to see San Diego and Oakland and Los Angeles and our labor partners and business leaders throughout the state as part of it.”
While the district is still advocating for the legislature to increase funding for schools, he said it’s more typical in the state for lawmakers to let the voters decide. “My expectation is just that’s how California works,” he said.
Using the New York City Department of Education for comparison, he told the almost 2,000 attendees at the State of Schools event that per-pupil spending in the nation’s largest district is $29,000, compared to $16,000 per student in LAUSD.
“That funding, it’s not just numbers on a page,” he told reporters. “It’s shocking to me, here we are in the fifth largest economy in the world saying we could make do with sixteen or have to make do with sixteen."
During his address, following musical and dance performances by LAUSD students, he referenced Sepulveda Middle School nurse Evelyn Borja, who saved a child’s life using CPR last school year.
“Thank goodness that was the day she was at the school, not the day she wasn’t at the school,” he said later, saying that every school needs a nurse, and that UTLA's concerns leading to the strike were valid. “During the strike, the frustrations of educators were very, very real. They’re dealing with too many students in their class.”
Responding by email, UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said he was unaware of renewed efforts to pass a ballot measure and that the union's "electoral focus in 2020 will be getting school board members who will fight for public schools elected in March and getting the Schools and Communities First initiative passed in November."
Schools and Communities First is a statewide ballot measure that would increase property taxes, some of which would go toward public schools and community colleges.
Caputo-Pearl added that in spite of the failure of Measure EE, he still expects "all parts of the contract to be implemented."
'What's best for that community'
Building support for more funding will take separating “fact from fiction,” Beutner said, addressing what he called myths about LAUSD. It’s a myth, he said, that the district has a lot of money in reserves and that the district has a “bloated bureaucracy.” Ninety-seven percent of the district's budget is spent in schools, he said.
Beutner also focused on the role of school leaders in continuing the trend of improvement, which includes increasing graduation rates and a decline in chronic absenteeism and suspension rates. "It's amazing what was done when you allow a school leader to decide what's best for that community," he said, referring to a school's effort to improve attendance.
He said the district has tried to take some of the load off administrators by reducing the number of certifications they need and by streamlining school maintenance. And it is reducing the requirements previously placed on parents who want to volunteer in their children's schools.
Another myth, he said, is that it will take some “dramatic plan” to improve student performance.
“Disruption is not what [students] need. They need stability and continuity,” he said, adding that over the past decade in LAUSD, there has been more emphasis on change than needed. "We know the answer already —experienced school leaders, well-staffed schools, high-quality teachers, social-emotional support."
But some community leaders suggest that more drastic changes are needed when less than half of the district's students are meeting state standards in math and English language arts.
"Los Angeles' students, educators and families deserve a transformative plan and leadership willing to follow through, even when it is tough," Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, an advocacy group favoring school choice and more transparency, said in an email. The organization's most recent report focuses on how parents get information on their children's education.
"There were several nice, small initiatives shared today," Litt said, "but they do not collectively point toward radically better opportunities or outcomes for LA Unified's students."