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L.A. school board calls for statewide moratorium on new charter schools

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 1/30/2019 Howard Blume
a group of people sitting at a table: From left, LAUSD board member Nick Melvoin, Austin Beutner, and Monica Garcia during a recent meeting. © Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times From left, LAUSD board member Nick Melvoin, Austin Beutner, and Monica Garcia during a recent meeting.

Los Angeles school officials made good on a deal with the teachers union on Tuesday, bringing forward and passing a resolution that calls for a statewide moratorium on new charter schools until their impact can be studied.

The resolution is non-binding for state officials, but it was vigorously opposed by charter supporters — more than 1,000 turned out to protest at district headquarters. The resolution was one product of a deal to end this month’s six-day teachers’ strike.

Earlier in the same meeting on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Education unanimously approved a contract with the teachers’ union, despite a warning from an oversight agency that the costs of it are “unsustainable.”

Just before school board members voted, they received a report from the L.A. County Office of Education, which provides financial oversight for local school districts. While the agency stopped short of urging a rejection of the new contract, it did issue a warning, saying the district would have to submit a revised three-year budget plan that meets the county’s parameters.

Under the new contract, the school system appears to be unable to meet all of its budget obligations. The pact is “not sustainable on an ongoing basis,” according to the county agency’s analysis.

If the district does not take the necessary steps to avoid financial risk, then the county agency can appoint a fiscal advisor who will have the authority to override district spending decisions.

The sober analysis did not prevent the L.A. school board from approving the new contract quickly and with little discussion.

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said he was well aware of the district’s financial challenges — indeed, he had repeatedly called attention to them during contract negotiations. Still, he said, the contract was the right step forward and that all parties had compromised to get to an agreement. Resolving the labor conflict would allow all groups to focus on shared challenges, such as cutting costs, winning more revenue from the state and voter initiatives.

“We are at a historic moment to start addressing these issues,” Beutner said. “This contract is not an end. It is a beginning.”

Board member Nick Melvoin said the district would have to make sure that its budget remained solvent.

“It’s up to us, collectively, to make it sustainable,” Melvoin said of the new contract.

The bigger drama inside the building and outside on the streets Tuesday was over another part of the deal that brought teachers back to the classroom this month — a resolution calling on state officials to place a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools.

Well over 1,000 charter school supporters rallied Tuesday outside district headquarters, west of downtown.

“I felt that it was important to be here today because students and families should have the choice of where to go to school,” said Lexi Hopp, 18, a senior at Granada Hills Charter High School. “Not every school is perfect. So every school, every family, needs to have their choice of where to send their student, to have the best fit possible for them.”

Charters are privately operated public schools that compete with L.A. Unified — and with each other — for students. Most charters are non-union.

Leaders of the teachers’ union pushed hard for the charter-moratorium resolution during negotiations. It could not be part of the contract, but district officials agreed to put the resolution before the board as part of a broader commitment that helped end a teachers’ strike that drew national attention.

In its current form, at least, the charter resolution had seemed unlikely to get the four votes needed to pass. Three of the six board members were elected with substantial financial backing from charter school supporters.

But in remarks to demonstrators before the afternoon meeting, school board President Monica Garcia indicated that the resolution might pass. She declined to answer questions about how she would vote.

In the end, she voted in favor of the resolution, as did Kelly Gonez, who also was elected with substantial support from charter school backers. The “no” vote came from Nick Melvoin.

Teachers have already approved the new contract, with 81% voting “yes,” according to preliminary figures. The contract calls for a 3% raise retroactive to July 1, 2017, and an additional 3% raise that’s retroactive to July 1, 2018. Teachers gave up about 3.5% of their pay for this year by being on strike for six days and a paid holiday that fell during that period.

The deal also is supposed provide full-time nurses at every campus, librarians at every secondary school and additional counselors at high schools. Class sizes would drop slightly next year and even more in subsequent years, provided there is enough revenue.

One problem with the contract that the County Office of Education cited is an optimistic assumption about future state revenue, based on the budget proposal submitted by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The county objected to counting future dollars that were not yet guaranteed. The state budget has yet to be approved by the Legislature.

The county also was concerned about a projection that the district’s reserve fund would fall just below legal requirements in three years.

“Based on the district’s own financial analysis, it is unable to meet reserve requirements in 2020-21, indicating the agreement is not sustainable,” Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Office of Education, said in a statement.

The agency said L.A. Unified would have until March 18 to make necessary adjustments in its budget and that a county fiscal team would provide assistance.

The topic that brought out charter protesters was the resolution calling for a state study on how charter schools affect traditional schools. The resolution also called for an eight- to 10-month moratorium while the study is being completed.

Teachers and their union leaders have long been concerned about the rapid growth of charters — even as district enrollment is declining overall because of population trends. L.A. Unified serves about 486,000 students in the schools it operates. L.A. Unified has 225 charters — more than in any other school system in the country — serving about 112,000 students.

The district’s declining enrollment has created financial pressure on the nation’s second-largest school system, which has had trouble cutting costs and faces increasing burdens from underfunded programs to provide retirees with pensions and health benefits.

There is no limit on how many charters can open, and some have closed because they, too, cannot attract enough students.

In the view of some, this constant competition is healthy — and likely to lead to better educational options and outcomes. Critics, including the union, insist that more effort and more resources should go toward existing schools, allowing them to remain sources of stability within their communities.

The resolution, even if it passes Tuesday, would have no effect on laws that govern how charters open and operate. The Legislature could act, but there would be stiff resistance from the influential charter school lobby. Lobbyists for the teachers’ unions are also powerful — and the two sides have often fought each other to a stalemate at the state level.

Twitter: @howardblume

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