LAUSD Cuts School Police — A Major Victory For Activists — But Mostly Maintains Status Quo In Its Budget For Now

A protester at a march to defund school police holds a sign that reads "Get LAPD out of LAUSD." (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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With uncertainty swirling about how the coronavirus recession will affect the Los Angeles Unified School District's bottom line, school board members approved a placeholder budget for the upcoming school year that largely maintains the district's current spending levels — at least for now.

However, in one headline-grabbing respect, LAUSD's new budget is anything but status quo: board members voted 4-3 to cut $25 million from the L.A. School Police Department.

On Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the vote, L.A. School Police Department Chief Todd Chamberlain, who was hired by the board only last November, stepped down from the job.

Black Lives Matter-L.A. and the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, had called for completely dismantling the district-run force that patrols LAUSD campuses. But last week, board members deadlocked on more ambitious proposals to slash the department.

So on Tuesday, board members Mónica García and Jackie Goldberg brokered a compromise to cut the department's budget by a more modest 35% — still a major victory for student activists who have been ramping up their criticisms of the department for years.

"What I have seen in Los Angeles inspires me to make myself uncomfortable," García said, "and to believe that students who came forward and lived an experience that none of us intended."


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WHAT THE SCHOOL POLICE CUTS WILL MEAN

The 35% cut to the L.A. School Police Department, which employs more than 400 officers, will have an immediate impact. L.A. School Police Chief Todd Chamberlain told the board that 65 officers will be laid off immediately, and three dozen vacant positions would go unfilled.

Officers will continue to be stationed at LAUSD high schools five days a week during the school day, Chamberlain said. But the department would have to scale back drastically from its current 24/7 service schedule. Fewer officers will be available to patrol the rest of the district — and it's unclear who would respond to campuses after 4:30 p.m. and on weekends.

Board members also barred the district from contracting instead with LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff or a private security firm.

Instead, the budget amendment — also supported by members Kelly Gonez and Nick Melvoin — calls on LAUSD to use the $25 million slashed from what was a $70 million police budget to hire more social workers, counselors and campus safety aids. The motion calls for directing these hires to schools with the district's largest populations of Black students.

It's close to what Black Lives Matter-L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah urged the board to do in testimony earlier in the day: "Let's divest from school police and invest in the things that our children actually need."

THE SCHOOL POLICE DEBATE

Though $25 million is just a sliver of the district's $8.9 billion operating budget, the cut from the L.A. School Police Department was by far the dominant issue in more than 13 hours of discussion and debate on Tuesday. The board's vote followed hours of impassioned testimony from both supporters and opponents of school police.

Activist and college instructor David Turner voiced opponents' frustration: "People have been out here for decades calling for ... 'care, not cops'; 'schools, not prisons.' How many ways do we have to say it before you hear us?"

"Having a police officer on campus doesn't send a message of safety, but a message of fear," said Marshé Doss, a recent Dorsey High School graduate and longtime activist against L.A. School Police policies.

School police supporters turned out as well, raising concerns about who would maintain safety if police were removed.

LAUSD principals have been some of the strongest voices in support of maintaining police presence on campuses — and the three votes against removing them came from former principals: board members Richard Vladovic, Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna — the only African American member of the board.

McKenna reiterated his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but objected to comparisons between school police and city or county cops. Vladovic begged his colleagues to delay, saying they couldn't foresee the ramifications of the vote.

"We're walking right into this without knowing where we're going, and how we're going to get there," Vladovic said.

"We don't need to rush and cut the budget of school police to satisfy high emotions," said P.J. Webb, head of the union representing L.A. School Police Department sergeants and lieutenants. "This department ... does not have a history of police brutality."

Between 2014 and 2017, UCLA's Bunche Center found L.A. School Police made 3,389 arrests, wrote 2,724 citations and sent 1,282 students to diversion programs such as counseling. (For context, the department answers more than 100,000 calls for service in a year in a district with 60,000 employees and 472,000 students.)

Department officials have said that when school police are called on students, in recent years, officers have been referring more students who commit minor infractions to diversion programs — which leave students without criminal records.

The Bunche Center data also showed that roughly 25% of those arrests, citations and diversions happened to Black students — even though Black students only represent around 8% of LAUSD's student population.

"It's called structural and systemic racism for a reason," said board member Melvoin, "and that's because it doesn't require animus or intent or motivation."

Melvoin also said the district should focus on ways to broaden conversations about how LAUSD serves Black and Brown students beyond policing.

"I'll express some disappointment," Melvoin said, "that this energy [against police] isn't directed toward the other 99% of our budget — a [multi-billion dollar] statement we're making today that leaves a lot of room for more equity and support of students."

Protesters rally in front of LAUSD's Headquarters during a protest to defund the L.A. School Police Department. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

ABOUT THAT BUDGET — WHAT'S NEXT?

Board members' vote on Tuesday fulfills a requirement under state law that they pass a budget by July 1.

In the coming months, LAUSD officials expect they'll have to make adjustments to their $8.9 billion spending plan as it becomes clearer how much funding California's largest school district can expect from the state and federal governments.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom and California's legislature have agreed to spare K-12 schools and community colleges from immediate cuts, state leaders are likely to revisit their spending plans in the coming months, in part because it's not clear how much revenue the state can expect after the income tax filing deadline, which was moved from April 15 to July 15 because of the pandemic.

State lawmakers are also waiting to see whether Congress and President Trump will come through with another aid package for state and local governments, which could help California dig out of a projected $40.9 billion shortfall in the coming budget year.

Because LAUSD officials wrote their current budget based largely on the governor's May spending proposals, they'll need to return to the board with revisions in the next 45 days.

Chief Financial Officer David Hart also raised the possibility that state lawmakers may make further revisions to their budget, necessitating even more adjustments at the district level in the coming months. LAUSD officials may also need to revisit their plans in December, when a state-mandated plan for aiding high-need students — which is closely tied to the budget — comes due.

In the meantime, rather than cutting school districts' permanent funding, the state plans to delay more than $12 billion in payments to school districts over the next year — an accounting trick revived from the Great Recession that allows the state to pass along its cash flow problems to local school districts.

LAUSD is positioned to take the hit to its cash flow, at least over the near term.

Even after absorbing an estimated $291 million in COVID-19 response costs, the district ends the school year with a healthy reserve. By the end of next year, officials expect LAUSD to have amassed nearly $1 billion in reserves.

But officials say many of the well-worn warnings bear repeating: LAUSD is spending more money each year than it takes in. Enrollment is still declining, and may decline further because of COVID-19.

CARRYOVER DOLLARS

While LAUSD's newly approved budget largely puts the district into a holding pattern, there are signs of possible changes to come.

For example: in LAUSD schools, principals coordinate decisions about how to spend dollars allocated by the district — decisions such as, "Should our school 'buy' another assistant principal? Or another social worker?"

When principals don't spend their entire allotment, schools are often allowed to essentially bank these dollars to be spent in the future. Because schools are carrying forward this unspent money, they're referred to as "carryover" dollars.

In recent years, as LAUSD officials have looked for savings to narrow previous budget gaps, they've avoided touching these carryover amounts — it's a step to reduce districtwide budget deficits that only works once.

In January, LAUSD's central office told school principals they could use half of these "carryover" dollars in their budgets for 2020-21 and that they might get access to the other half in September — which isn't necessarily unusual, officials said.

Central office hasn't yet committed to releasing those carryover dollars to schools. On Tuesday, several board members expressed concern about signals that central office may begin to claw back some of these carryover dollars from both school sites and central office budgets — as much as $521 million over the next three years to help close what, in a worst-case scenario, could be a huge deficit by 2022-23.

"The reason why schools have a lot of carryover," said board member Gonez, "is not because of their lack of planning, but as a result of policies and practices that generate dollars that principals can't incorporate into their school until the next year" — such as budgeting for a nurse or librarian, but being unable to hire one.

"It feels unfair to penalize schools for those rules," she added, "which are outside of their control."

UPDATE, July 1, 5:15 p.m.: This story was updated to include the announcement by L.A. School Police Chief Todd Chamberlain that he has resigned.