No teachers will lose their jobs this school year, Los Angeles Unified School District officials announced Friday, a calculated gamble that will preserve classroom continuity in the short term but lead to a larger deficit next year.
The decision reverses course from last week, when the school board voted to give Supt. Ramon C. Cortines the authority to send pink slips to nearly 2,300 instructors. The district is facing at least a $250-million shortfall this year because of the state's financial crisis.
If layoffs were mandated, thousands of students would have had to change teachers mid-semester, classes could have grown in size and administrators who have not taught for years might have been bumped back into schools.
"The price of disruption is just not worth it," said Cortines, who had always called the layoffs a last resort.
But the decision could push the district's general fund into the red by June 30, and it postpones -- and could even worsen -- the district's long-term budget woes. Before classes resume next fall, the district would have to cut $500 million to $600 million, a process that will start soon. The district must notify teachers by March 15 if they are in danger of losing their jobs next year, and Cortines said layoffs are inevitable.
Cortines, who took over as leader of the school district earlier this month, is taking a bold step -- superintendents do not typically propose carrying over deficits from year to year. The district already is undergoing especially close scrutiny from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which has the authority to reject the district's financial plan.
"It's a risk -- it could exacerbate our spending problems in the summer -- but it's a risk worth taking," said board member Richard Vladovic.
Cortines also decided to delay layoffs because about 2,000 teachers have signed up for early retirement, a move that could save millions of dollars next year.
The district had offered a $300 bonus to any eligible employee who filled out the paperwork to retire early.
Other measures, including a freeze on many consultant contracts and optional spending, remain in effect. Cortines said that other cost-cutting proposals, including using the district's legally required reserve fund, remain on the table.
The $250-million deficit isn't the only financial problem looming. At a news conference Friday announcing legislation that would provide emergency funding for school meals, Cortines said the district could soon run out of funds to pay for the school breakfasts and lunches of low-income students who qualify for free- or reduced-priced meals.
The number of applicants statewide has ballooned this year.
Cortines insisted that L.A. Unified will not go into the red this year, but that may depend on whether the final state budget resolution allows school systems to dip into funds that normally are reserved for specific purposes, such as transportation or class-size reduction.
Other districts also have had trouble balancing their books.
The county education office, which oversees the 80 districts in Los Angeles County, recently installed a financial advisor at the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which serves the Hawthorne-Lawndale area, over fears that the school system would not be able to meet its financial obligations. The fiscal advisor has the power to veto spending decisions.
County officials said they would permit a school district to run in the red, provided it could pay bills and meet payroll -- and provided that the deficit was remedied in the subsequent two budget years.
Cortines didn't need school board approval to make the decision, but board members said they were relieved.
"I'm thrilled," said Yolie Flores Aguilar. "We didn't want to interrupt classes in the middle of the year."
A.J. Duffy, president of the teachers union, also said it was the right decision. "The last thing you want to do is affect the school and the school site."
Some teachers union leaders had suggested the district make a political statement by continuing to fully fund schools until state money ran out -- a pressure tactic aimed at forcing Sacramento to provide more dollars.
United Teachers Los Angeles is still fighting to win teachers a salary increase and has planned a march and rally for next week.
Some local business leaders also have suggested letting the district go bankrupt. Their desired outcome is to compel change at the district level, which would include abrogating the lengthy teachers union contract and weakening employee unions overall.
Duffy vowed to continue pushing the district to oppose job cuts, preserve low-cost health benefits and reduce expenses from the district's central offices. "We have no illusions. We're looking at cuts in the spring," Duffy said.