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LAUSD Needs More Money For Coronavirus Response. Does The State Have Any To Give?

Staff at an L.A. Unified School District 'Grab and Go' meal distribution center hands food to parents in their cars outside of Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Los Angeles Unified School District leaders' approach has been to respond to the emergency now -- with meals, internet connections, laptops and more -- and figure out how to pay for it all later.

All this unforeseen spending means that, by the end of this school year, LAUSD's pandemic response will blow a $200 million hole in the district's $9.2 billion budget, Superintendent Austin Beutner announced Monday.

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In a video update, Beutner pleaded with state and federal lawmakers for help picking up the unpaid bills. He even argued that, in some cases, LAUSD was spending to make up for problems that should've been addressed by other government agencies.

"It may sound counter-intuitive," Beutner said, "to be talking about increased spending on education in the midst of looming state budget issues, but it's necessary -- unless we're prepared to sacrifice a generation of boys and girls who are counting on a great education as a path out of poverty."


Both L.A.'s city government and school system have been ramping up the pressure on state and federal officials for another round of financial help.

While Beutner said he didn't anticipate the need for staffing cuts in the near term at LAUSD, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti also unveiled his own, grim budget on Monday -- which included furloughs and pay cuts for workers in city government.

But officials in Sacramento are grappling with a budget crisis of their own.


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Last week, the California Legislative Analyst's Office announced a projected shortfall of perhaps $35 billion this year -- enough to wipe out in short order the hard-won $17.5 billion in the state's rainy day fund.

"Even with this budgetary cushion, which is significantly larger than what we went into the last recession, difficult decisions do lie ahead," said Vivek Viswanathan, the chief deputy budget director at the state's Department of Finance.

At a State Senate hearing last week, Viswanathan said Gov. Gavin Newsom has appealed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for more than $1 trillion in relief for state and local governments -- including funding for education.

"Even $1 trillion," Viswanathan said, "won't be enough to avoid the hole that we're in, but it will help us minimize the most devastating cuts."

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner discusses a big shortfall in funding due to COVID-19 spending. (Screenshot from video)


In the meantime, Beutner said LAUSD fears being left holding the bill for nearly $200 million in expenses -- about half of the money they've spent on coronavirus-related emergency measures, including:

  • $78 million for meals. The federal government reimburses districts for school meals to students. But they don't reimburse for distributing meals to their parents, and without action from the state or federal level, LAUSD will be left with a $40 million tab for the meals it's given to adults. "In the absence of broader food relief efforts by the city or county, we have stepped up to help," Beutner said.
  • Perhaps $50 million for expanded summer school, twice the amount the district had originally budgeted for the program. Beutner promised a "major effort" to scale up LAUSD's summer offerings this year to prevent summer learning loss. He also said that the district's estimate for this program's price tag may change as the district finalizes details for the summer program.
  • $31 million to train teachers for distance learning. Beutner noted the district saved some money on this item by conducting this training while teachers were still being paid to lead classes online. "It's worth noting other school districts chose to stop instruction for a period of weeks to train educators," he said.
  • $23 million to close the digital divide. LAUSD got the sign-off to useroughly $72 million in bond dollars to purchase thousands of laptops for needy students. However, the district still must find the money to cover the costs for securing internet connections for these children. Beutner argued this shouldn't be LAUSD's job: "It should be the responsibility of other government agencies -- the [Federal Communications Commission] at the federal level or the Public Utility Commission at a state level." (Later on Monday, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of Governor Gavin Newsom, announced that the state has partnered with several technology companiesand entrepreneurs to help increase internet access.)
  • $9 million for safety equipment. The state recently issued emergency funding to schools for personal protective gear and other supplies needed to deep-clean campuses. LAUSD's already spent more than twice what the state sent.

Signs at an L.A. Unified School District 'Grab and Go' meal distribution center. (Chava Sanchez/Laist)


For now, LAUSD isn't in danger of running out of cash.

Nearly two weeks before the district closed its campuses, LAUSD officials estimated the district would carry forward nearly $811 million in reserves into the next school year.

However, state law requires districts to submit balanced budgets for not only the coming school year, but the two years after that as well -- and in order to meet that requirement, LAUSD officials had said they'd need to spend every cent of that reserve.

And that was before the pandemic. But an additional $200 million in emergency expenditures would upset that delicate balance and likely make it difficult for LAUSD to submit a budget that was balanced for the next three years.

Beutner said LAUSD's board will meet "in the coming weeks to review these issues."

He also said that, despite speculation, it's still not clear when LAUSD could re-open campuses or resume normal operations.

"In the long run," he said, "there's no economy without education and in the short run there's a much smaller economy without the childcare and safety net public schools provide to working families."