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LAUSD Warns Budget Cuts Plus Coronavirus Might Make Reopening Campuses Hard

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The following article was originally published May 19, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Kyle Stokes

Approving Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed cuts to education funding could jeopardize the Los Angeles Unified School District's ability to reopen campuses this fall, a top district official warned on Tuesday.

LAUSD officials unveiled projections showing the district stands to lose more than $500 million — about 7% of its overall revenue — if California lawmakers enact steep funding cuts to cope with cratering state revenues in the coming weeks.

But reopening campuses would likely increase school districts' costs, especially if parents or health officials demand face masks, protective gear, more frequent sanitation or perhaps even more staff in order to maintain social distancing on campuses.

"The notion that schools can continue to operate safely in the fall with a decreased state budget is not realistic," deputy superintendent Megan Reilly said in prepared remarks before the L.A. Unified School Board on Tuesday.

She added: "We cannot, in good conscience, risk the health and safety of our students and staff by returning to the classroom prematurely and without the funding for the necessary precautions."

LAUSD General Fund Unrestricted & Restricted from LAUSD Board Budget Update on May 19, 2020
LAUSD General Fund Unrestricted & Restricted from LAUSD Board Budget Update on May 19, 2020

'ANY RETURN TO SCHOOL WILL COST MORE'

Reilly isn't the first California school official to point out this disconnect, but her comments perhaps mark the first time an LAUSD official has stated so plainly that funding cuts would put a return to classrooms at risk.

"We all recognize there is no substitute for learning in a school setting," LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said Tuesday.

That said, Beutner added, "Any return to school will cost more ... Everyone who is there — students, staff, families — will need to be provided with the appropriate protective equipment. School facilities will have to be sanitized top to bottom. Student needs will be greater."

Reilly and Beutner's comments prefaced a bleak presentation on the uncertain financial challenges facing LAUSD.

But LAUSD Chief Financial Officer David Hart also noted that the estimated $500 million revenue hit is not inevitable:

For instance, the governor's budget does promise roughly $4.4 billion in additional federal aid for schools to help backfill the cuts. Hart did not include this money in his forecast because he was unable to get a reliable figure for how great a portion LAUSD would receive if the legislature approves the governor's proposal.

Newsom himself has also said that if the federal government comes through with a new relief package for state and local governments, the cuts he proposed to California's main K-12 funding formula would roll back.

May Revision General Fund Forecast from LAUSD Board Budget Update on May 19, 2020
May Revision General Fund Forecast from LAUSD Board Budget Update on May 19, 2020

UNCERTAIN TIMES AHEAD

Still, Hart's presentation showed a period of financial uncertainty lies ahead.

Every June, California school districts are required to approve budget plans not only for the upcoming year, but for the two years after that as well.

Hart said that the district already forecasted budget deficits that would approach $1 billion by June 2023. State funding cuts would likely make this problem worse. Through a combination of belt-tightening, more exact budget-writing and federal relief, Hart painted a scenario in which LAUSD could winnow this shortfall down to $450 million without layoffs.

LAUSD's budget forecasts have proved to be overly pessimistic for years. The school district has amassed healthy reserves — estimated at $811 million before the pandemic — all while officials have warned funds would run out.

That said, part of the reason LAUSD has avoided shortfalls is because the state has come through with one-time funding. With an estimated $54.3 billion deficit through 2021, California may not be in a position to come through with additional funding.

Some board members took Hart's forecast with a grain of salt.

"I'm not going to worry about Year 3 at all," said school board member Jackie Goldberg, referring to the dire 2022-23 budget forecast. "Here's why: we have no idea what Year 3 will be like."

That said, "I think we have to worry about Year 2."

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