The Los Angeles Unified School District has developed stark new plans including larger class sizes, layoffs and early retirement incentives to deal with a worsening state budget situation.
District officials -- already in the process of identifying $400 million in cuts for next year -- almost certainly will have to reopen this year's budget and find about $200 million to $400 million to meet an anticipated shortfall. The budget-cutting is becoming a painfully familiar routine: Officials had to eliminate 680 jobs just to balance the books last June.
"It was hard enough to do that, so doing it again, in the middle of the school year" could be chaotic, said Megan Reilly, the district's chief financial officer.
District finances have been shaky virtually from the moment the Board of Education approved a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. At the time, officials avoided the teacher layoffs that befell other state school systems, but officials also made overly optimistic assumptions.
The budget included four unpaid furlough days for employees -- to shave off about $55 million -- without negotiating the furloughs with employee unions. Officials hoped for an improved state budget situation that would render the furloughs unnecessary. Instead the opposite has happened. A worsening economy could result in midyear cuts to the district's $8.6-billion budget, even under a proposal -- backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- that would include new taxes.
Statewide, the governor has called for $2.5 billion in midyear cuts to schools; the impact would be doubled, in effect, because the school year would be half over before the cuts could be put in place.
"I have not talked to one superintendent yet who has enough wiggle room to come up with that kind of cut," said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. "I was on the phone with one superintendent who doesn't know how she would do this without closing schools in May rather than June. I've heard others talk about closing on Fridays. This would constitute the first year-to-year reduction in dollars for schools in California since the Great Depression."
In Los Angeles, teachers union officials have asserted that they would not accept furlough days. They heard encouraging words on that score from Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who said he did not favor them either. Cortines held briefings for employees last week to discuss proposed cuts and answer questions.
"I feel the district made a mistake balancing a budget on the backs of employees," he told employees during one such meeting at district headquarters.
But avoiding furloughs would necessitate cuts elsewhere, Cortines added.
Cortines said he planned steep reductions at the district offices on Beaudry Avenue and other non-school sites, including asking for cuts at the eight regional offices in the 700,000-student school system. These "mini-districts," which are now allocated $37 million, could see their budgets reduced 10% midyear and by half next year.
Cortines' vow to spare schools as much as possible won praise from A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers' union.
"The opportunity to finally destroy this bureaucracy in a meaningful, permanent way is here," said Duffy, repeating his mantra about waste in the central administration.
Cortines also said he would virtually stop using outside contractors except when unavoidable, as in safety matters and food services. He also raised the possibility of offering early retirement plans to employees and ending the practice of providing lifetime benefits to retirees. He suggested that, for new employees, the goal could be to provide benefits until workers qualified for Medicare, which is federally funded.
One proposal would be immediately evident to parents and students: a plan to boost class size to 25 students from the current 20 in kindergarten through third grade. This change would require permission from the state to avoid a financial penalty. But Cortines also wants to lower class size in fourth and fifth grades from 30 to 25, which he cited as evidence that he does not intend to give up on reforms.
Duffy said the union would not consent to increasing class sizes unless the district agreed to "a whole boatload" of concessions, including giving adult education teachers tenure and the union more of a say in ongoing teacher training.
The district and teachers remain at loggerheads over salaries for last year and this year. District officials have penciled in no raises at all, a position the union leadership has threatened to strike over.
Cortines said he hoped to have his proposal to the Board of Education before the winter holidays.
"It's an awesome task we have to do to remain solvent," Cortines said.