One year after the teachers’ strike that convulsed California’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner says that the district still faces fundamental financial problems, and continues to spend more money than it is receiving from the state.
Appointed in May 2018, Beutner is approaching the anniversary of his second year in office. A former investment banker, Beutner was a controversial choice, as he did not have a background in education, although he had served on a task force to help the district achieve the goals of its strategic plan. Unlike superintendents who are brought in from outside their communities, he had also been a deputy mayor in Los Angeles as well as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, so in that sense he was deeply familiar with the city and its challenges.
In an interview in his office on the 24th floor of the district’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, he characterized the state of labor relations since the strike as “constructive,” and noted that at the time of the labor conflict both he and the union leaders acknowledged that “one contract is not going to solve decades of frustrations felt by educators.”
The agreement, he said, “provided a framework for progress and moving forward, and we are moving forward together.”
Listen here to our interview with Austin Beutner in EdSource’s podcast “This Week in California Education.”
The district gets $16,402 from the state to educate each child, Beutner said. But the district is spending more than that — $18,788 per child, according to district officials.
To cover its costs, the district is still drawing from its reserves. He said there was a consensus when the contract with the union was signed a year ago that additional funding would be needed to meet its terms in what Beutner called “the out years” — years three, four and five of the agreement — and that is still the case.
“We’re taking whatever savings existed and spending in the classroom today, knowing that can’t continue forever, which is why we have to go to the Legislature and get more funding,” he said.
Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the major teachers’ union in the district, agreed that the district will need additional funds, and said he was skeptical about “doomsday predictions” about its future. “The district is not going to go bankrupt,” he said in an interview.
For an EdSource interview with Alex Caputo-Pearl, go here.
As to the agreement the union signed with the district, Caputo-Pearl said, “the district has been meeting its obligations on some things and has not been meeting its obligations on other things.” For example, the district has increased the number of counselors and librarians, along with funding for community schools providing comprehensive services to students, but has yet to reduce standardized testing and to find the additional school nurses agreed to in the contract, he said.
District officials point out that there is a chronic shortage of school nurses statewide, and it is working with UTLA to come up with solutions. As to reducing student testing, the district agreed to set up a committee to address the issue a part of the settlement, and the committee held its first meeting last month, officials said.
Beutner compared what the district spends to the $29,000 per student spent in New York City — the only other school district in the country with a larger student population than Los Angeles Unified.
“To put that gap in funding in human terms, over the course of a child’s K-12 journey, that’s the cost of about a reading teacher and an aide,” Beutner said. “Imagine if we took every 2nd-grader and they had their own reading teacher. Every child could become proficient. Every child could read. That sounds like Nirvana to me. So it’s fundamentally about a fight for adequacy and we’re in that fight together.”
For now, he said, “we’re trying to do the best possible job, even if that means taking savings to do the best possible job today. That’s the right thing for our students today, knowing that for tomorrow we’ve got to find a way to do better.”
“The strike underscored a fundamental reality in California, that all of our funding comes from the state,” Beutner said. “So a strike against an individual school district is at odds with where the solution may lie.”
A year ago, there was a massive outpouring of public support for the teachers. That, however, did not translate into voter willingness to tax themselves to provide the district with additional support.
Last spring, an effort led by Beutner, union leaders, Mayor Eric Garcetti and many other civic leaders to convince voters to approve a tax on real estate — a so-called parcel tax — that would have brought in a projected $500 million for the district failed by a wide margin. For passage it needed a two-thirds vote in its favor. But only 46 percent of voters in the low-turnout election supported it, and 54 percent voted against it.
Now, Beutner said, the focus should remain on Sacramento to come up with more funding — and on voters who will almost certainly have to decide whether to support the so-called “split roll” voter initiative that will be on this November’s statewide ballot to raise property taxes on commercial properties. Several billion dollars of the funds raised would go to schools.
If approved, the initiative would usher in the most significant reform of Proposition 13, the tax-cutting initiative approved by voters in 1978, by significantly raising commercial property tax rates, while keeping residential rates where they are currently — hence the “split roll” label.
Beutner declined to say whether he would endorse that specific measure. “I haven’t read that ballot language, but we will be supportive of any path to provide additional funding to support kids in our schools,” he said.
“We are keeping our head above water,” said Beutner in terms of the larger issue of how to recruit and retain teachers in a city with high — and rising — housing and other costs. That is especially challenging when it comes to specialized credentials like physics and chemistry, as well as finding teachers to teach dual language classes. He said the district will shortly be announcing a plan to create more affordable teacher and staff housing, and is also trying to grow its own teachers through its intern credential program.
One of the most contentious issues during the strike was the impact of the over 200 charter schools in the district — more than in any district in the United States. Union leaders called for a moratorium on charter school expansion, and as a result of the strike the board backed them on the issue. That has not happened. What did happen was a compromise agreement forged by Gov. Gavin Newsom last October, which, among other things, will allow districts to deny charter applications if they can show that it will have a negative impact on their finances.
Beutner didn’t address the charter controversy directly other than to say he wants to make sure “all students are getting a great education, and all schools are held to the same level of transparency, regardless of their governance model.” He pointed out that the charter law (AB 1505) signed by Newsom last October only goes into effect during the coming school year, so the district has not yet exercised its additional powers to deny a charter school’s petition. “We will cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said. “We are still doing homework to make sure we understand the intent and the letter of the law.”
At the time of the strike, Beutner had been in office less than a year, and it was unclear how long he would be able to hold on to his job. Now that the district has made it through its labor crisis, there is less talk about yet another turnover in the superintendent’s post.
There is wide agreement that running L.A. schools is one of the toughest jobs in U.S. education. Asked whether he intends to stay “for a while” in his position, he gave a one word answer: Yes.
School board elections coming up in March will change the makeup of the board, which could have an impact on his longevity in the district. But Beutner said he feels fortunate “at this point in my life to have the ability to do this work, to be part of this amazing organization and help provide the foundation for the future.”
“Leadership matters,” he said, in terms of building that foundation. “We talk a lot about continuity in the classroom, keeping politics out of school, so we can have the best educators doing good work. I think the same thing also applies to leadership.”