Now there’s a deeper hole in Los Angeles

Thousands of Los Angeles Unified teachers gathered in front of Los Angeles City Hall last week to demonstrate their solidarity in negotiations with the district.
Thousands of Los Angeles Unified teachers gathered in front of Los Angeles City Hall last week to demonstrate their solidarity in negotiations with the district. AP

The union that represents teachers in the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, is claiming its six-day strike produced a victory and local media are echoing that line.

It might be a pyrrhic victory because it could drive LA Unified, which is already in a deep financial hole of its own making, even closer to insolvency.

United Teachers of Los Angeles settled for the same 6 percent raise over two years the district offered before the strike. Its victory claim rests on the district’s agreeing to put more nurses and librarians in junior and senior high schools and reduce class sizes.

The district says the concessions will cost $403 million over three years – money the district does not have. LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner previously declared the district was already on track to spend $24 billion over three years while receiving just $22 billion.

It’s not the first time LA Unified gave its teachers a raise it couldn’t afford – though all school districts have seen big increases in support from local property taxes and state aid.

Since Jerry Brown’s election as governor in 2010, state and local spending on schools has increased from $49.7 billion to $77.9 billion, and with enrollment stagnant or dropping in some places, per-pupil spending has jumped by 50 percent to nearly $12,000 a year – not counting federal funds.

The increases, says the Legislature’s budget analyst, mean “California per-pupil spending ranks in the middle among the states.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first budget puts another $3 billion into schools and makes a one-time payment into the State Teachers Retirement System to slightly decrease schools’ pension fund payments, which have been rising sharply to shore up the troubled trust fund.

So why have LA Unified and several other large urban districts been operating in the red?

Many are seeing enrollment declines, exacerbated in LA Unified’s case by parents pulling kids out of the system and sending them to charter schools. School financing is largely driven by enrollment, so such departures hurt.

Those pension payments are another factor. Too-rosy investment projections by the California Public Employees Retirement System has left a hole that districts must fill, but ever-rising demands to cover non-teaching employees make it deeper.

Finally, the politicization of large urban districts creates a pressure cooker to give workers raises that districts cannot afford. Sacramento Unified, for instance, shifted money from a pension reserve to pay for a new teacher contract in response to a strike threat.

The pressure now shifts to Newsom and the Legislature to rescue troubled districts, including union demands to limit charter schools. And it sets the stage for what could be a titanic battle over raising taxes.

A measure to remove Proposition 13’s property tax limits on commercial property is already on the 2020 ballot. If successful, it could raise up to $10 billion a year, with 40 percent of that going to schools. That’s a lot of money. But to push California’s per-pupil spending into the upper ranks of all states would mean another $5,000 per student – or $30 billion a year.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization.