Walters: School districts set poor example for students

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There’s bitter irony in the loud complaints from California school officials and unions — particularly in large urban districts — about not having enough money.

Schools are supposed to be teaching our children how to become productive and responsible adults, but by overspending revenues, blaming others for their fiscal problems and demanding bailouts, they are setting poor examples.

We just saw a prime — but, unfortunately, not isolated — example in Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school system.

L.A. Unified’s teachers union struck, demanding salary increases, lower class sizes and other costly items, even though the district was already projecting multi-billion-dollar deficits.

The strike’s settlement will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, in a strongly worded analysis, called it “unsustainable on an ongoing basis.”

Characteristically, district officials and United Teachers of Los Angeles blame others for the widening gap between income and outgo, particularly a burgeoning charter school movement that has lured about 150,000 students, and their financial support, away from L.A. Unified.

The school board called for a moratorium on new charters — ignoring the simple fact that parents turned to charters because their children were not succeeding in L.A. Unified’s schools. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, warned the board not to finance the new contract with funds specified to raise the academic performances of poor and other “high-needs” students.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who enjoyed strong support from school unions last year, immediately asked state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond, also strongly tied to the unions, to study the financial impact of charter school diversions.

Los Angeles’ school officials also cited rising pension costs for their financial woes. However, as the Legislature’s budget analyst pointed out last week, in analyzing Newsom’s plan to pump more state money into the teachers’ retirement fund, “School funding … has grown by nearly $22 billion (37 percent) over the past six years, significantly outpacing growth in pension costs.” In other words, the complaints about pension costs are something of a red herring.

As mentioned above, L.A. Unified is not an isolated example. In 2017, when Sacramento Unified’s teachers were threatening to strike, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg mediated a new contract that gave teachers an 11 percent raise. Later, it emerged that the salary increases would come from a reserve set aside for pension fund payments.

Sacramento County schools Superintendent David Gordon warned Sacramento Unified several times that its budget was faulty and he eventually disapproved it. The district now is one of four districts on the “negative certification” list maintained by the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team for budgetary mismanagement.

And then there’s San Diego Unified. Last year, to partially close a looming budget deficit, it tapped into one-time funds, much like L.A. Unified is doing to finance its new contract, even though the district’s official policy is not to employ that irresponsible practice.

School districts overspending their revenues are hoping for bailouts from Sacramento and/or voter approval of a pending ballot measure that would strip property tax limits from commercial real estate, raising as much as $10 billion a year.

However, a new Public Policy Institute of California poll indicates that voters are not embracing the so-called “split roll” measure and the commercial real estate industry has pledged to spend $100 million to defeat it.

By example, school officials and school unions are teaching students that it’s all right to run up credit card bills, blame others for overspending and then cross their fingers that someone will bail them out.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it’s important. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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