The Los Angeles Unified School District is confronting an estimated $200 million in emergency coronavirus costs after swiftly moving to provide computers for all students and food for their families, and it’s not clear where crucial additional funding might ultimately come, Superintendent Austin Beutner said in an interview published Monday.
The mounting expenses will not immediately push the district’s $7.87 billion general fund into insolvency, but the unbudgeted spending probably violates state law requiring school systems to maintain a three-year balanced budget, the Los Angeles Times reported. Although state officials may relax those rules in the current crisis, they have not committed to covering the costs incurred by L.A. Unified — especially with state tax revenue plummeting.
“We know the crisis is having a big impact on the students and families we serve and it’s having a big impact on school budgets as well,” Beutner told The Times. The priority, he said, has been to address a community crisis and sort out who pays the bills later.
“The most immediate challenge is to make sure we take care of students, help them continue to learn and help students, families, most in need,” he said.
Beutner said the district is developing an initiative that will focus on younger students, who many experts say have more difficulty staying on track with distance learning. That plan may involve hiring more teachers or otherwise lowering class size — a striking contrast in tone with the remarks of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who called Sunday for the furloughs of thousands of city workers. Budget fallout already is evident in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed about $827 million in school cost-saving measures, according to the online publication Chalkbeat.
Unlike the budget for New York City schools, which the mayor controls, the L.A. Unified budget — as in all California districts — is controlled by the state. But the picture is nonetheless grim. California legislative analyst Gabriel Petek predicted a deficit of as much as $35 billion in the near future and an additional $85 billion in fiscal years to come, The Times reported.
Although there are varying ways to break down the financial crunch, the costs are staggering by any measure, even when accounting for recently approved state and federal aid. The district’s list of coronavirus emergency expenses, which will be formally released Monday, include, according to The Times:
— $78 million for food aid. This is normally reimbursed by the federal government, but L.A. Unified is technically violating restrictions by feeding adults as well as children.
— $50 million for expanded summer school. This will pay for a “distance learning” program to address learning deficits caused by campus closures.
— $31 million for teacher training to prepare a work force that, by and large, was underprepared to lead instruction online.
— $23 million to connect students from low-income households to the internet.
— $9 million for safety equipment and supplies, mostly in connection to the ongoing “grab-and-go” food program at 63 campuses.
“We served almost 600,000 meals last Friday,” Beutner told The Times. “To do that properly, we make sure that those who are involved are wearing masks, they’re wearing gloves, that all of the surfaces are disinfected on a continual basis throughout the day.”