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Schools: Keep the Ax Sharp

March 15, 2004

The Los Angeles school board gave near-unanimous approval last week to a $400-million package of spending reductions that shrank its budget hole and polished its public image. But the hardest work is yet to come.

The proposed budget spares schools the brunt of the cuts next year. Class size will not grow, no teaching positions will be lost and campus budgets will remain largely intact. But it is not without pain.

Hundreds of workers, mostly clerical staffers, may lose their jobs. The number of high school counselors will shrink, summer school and after-school programs will be cut, campus maintenance will suffer and services for special education students will be reduced.

In the last three years, Los Angeles Unified has been forced to cut its $6-billion budget by about $873 million. In the past, the process has been contentious, with the board frustrated by the illogic of budget numbers and split by personality, philosophy and politics.

This time around, the district staff was better prepared, with budget documents that actually made sense and creative plans that freed up $144 million by refinancing debts and that saved millions more by spreading federal funds earmarked for needy students. Supt. Roy Romer took pains to limit the cuts to administrative functions, and board President Jose Huizar pushed the board to adopt Romer's plan without the typical horse-trading and political posturing. Outside pressure was brought to bear by the county Department of Education, which warned that the district's credit rating could drop if the board did not agree quickly on a spending plan. But there is still $60 million left to cut in the coming weeks, and that process will measure the influence of the powerful teachers union, the resolve of the board and the commitment of the superintendent.

The teachers union is hammering the board to make deeper cuts in regional administrative offices, which are a symbol to union leaders of a bureaucracy that limits their power and strangles teachers' creativity. Romer credits those mini-districts with shepherding reading and math reforms that have forced teacher accountability and improved student achievement. The board needs to find a middle ground that doesn't patronize teachers or jeopardize academic improvement.

Further ahead, the district needs to restructure its spending to deal with a budget imbalance that promises to grow worse in the coming years, even if state funding increases. The board's private budget advisor, school finance expert John Mockler, has warned that rising healthcare costs mean the district cannot continue to afford its generous employee health benefits package. And because the district's demographics are changing -- its elementary population is decreasing while the number of secondary students grows -- new ways must be found to pay for high school services. Unless board members are willing to risk unpopular choices, they had better keep the hatchet polished because the gap between income and expenses will only grow.

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