LA Daily News Editorial
April 15, 2009 -- THIS week the Los Angeles Unified School District made some hard choices in the face of budget deficits. All things considered, cutting the school year by one week, or five school days, this year and the next is vastly better than laying off 1,400 people and increasing class size.
It will cost teachers, who agreed to take 12 furlough days to save jobs, and working parents, who will have to arrange care for their kids those days. But when times are tough, these are the kinds of hard choices that everyone - from individuals to public organizations - must make to get by.
But it undercuts the district's cries of poverty when on the very same day that the Board of Education approved a drastic cost-saving measure it also gave a nod to borrow millions to pay for capital improvements, some of highly questionable need. This is money that will need to be repaid - including interest - from the same fund that pays for teachers and general school operating costs.
If roofs were threatening to fall down on students' heads or school buses were in danger of exploding, the district could justify using what amounts to a credit card purchase.
But solar panels? Fancy green school buses? What is Superintendent Ramon Cortines thinking?
For that matter, what's in the air over in LAUSD's facilities offices? Facility administrators have been taken some baffling, as well as suspicious, actions recently.
For example, senior facilities executive Bassam Raslan two weeks ago was indicted on conflict-of-interest charges for allegedly using his district position to hire employees from a company he also runs. As a result, both District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Controller Wendy Greuel are very interested in the department's documentation. Last week, the facilities department decided it was time to do some house cleaning of paperwork. It started purging computer files until a union complaint forced it to halt the conveniently timed data dump.
Now we're supposed to trust that this department "needs" $360 million for new stuff?
Residents might be scratching their heads wondering what happened to the $7 billion in bond revenue that voters endorsed in 2008 for upgrading schools and facilities. The recession, it seemed, happened. Declining home values mean the district won't be able to collect this money until 2016.
But Cortines said these projects can't wait until then. Solar panels can't wait?
In addition to spending $51 million to repair the auditorium at Garfield High School (they must be using the same firm County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was planning to use for his $707,000 office remodel) and $38 million for environmentally friendly school buses, the district also wants to borrow $100 million to install solar panels at 90 schools.
The payoff on this investment won't be realized for more than two decades. The district expects to save about $5 million a year on its $85 million utility bill - and possibly more if power rates increase.
That means it won't really save the district money until at least 20 years at current power rates, and even longer when you factor in the cost of borrowing money.
This seems an odd priority for a school district so strapped it has to cut 12 days worth of pay from thousands of schoolteachers and cheat its students out of two weeks of education.
Of course, this is the same district that spent more than $100 million on a payroll system so flawed it took years and millions more to fix.
And where are the school board members on this? The people who were elected to act as some sort of citizen oversight and representative to the district? They sat by and gave this project a thumbs up. Is it a wonder this district is in such a crisis with priorities like these?