On the brink of what could potentially be the first LAUSD teachers strike since 1989, Speak UP sat down with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner to discuss labor talks, parent power and how to solve the district’s financial crisis while putting the needs of kids first. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Speak UP: You've been on the job just a few months, and you’re already in the thick of things. How’s it going?
Austin Beutner: It is an honor and a privilege. The chance to make a difference in the life of a child, there is no higher calling than that. It is about the kids. That’s all it's about. I think we can do better for the kids.
SU: There's a lot of pressure to not look at it through that lens.
AB: Yes, there’s pressure, there's practice, there's historic norms, there's adults who sometimes say things, and you scratch your head and you go, "where's the kid in that?"... I view myself as, perhaps, the chief kid advocate. My job as a superintendent is to make it easier for that great teacher to do his or her job and make it better for that student.
SU: You're coming in at a challenging time. The district is having financial problems, and you have a finance background. But retiree and pension healthcare is taking up an increasing portion of the budget and is eventually projected to reach 50 percent. We have a three-year healthcare deal that was made before you came in, limiting any flexibility there. What can you do to help stabilize the budget long-term in a way that won't harm kids?
AB: It's the right question. First, we have to do better. We can celebrate record-high graduation rates, but at the same time, how proficient or knowledgeable are those students? Roughly half of the students who graduate aren’t even eligible to apply to the state university systems. Two-thirds of our students are not proficient in math. A student that’s not proficient in math, is he a graduate? My mission is to help those students become proficient and knowledgeable, in particular those most in need.
Our budgets, our financial resources should all be aligned to help that student most in need. The budget is really a set of choices. If we're spending [more] on healthcare, then we're spending less on something else. What is that something else? And is that the choice that the community as a whole and all of the stakeholders think is the right choice?
SU: But we know that you can't do anything about pension contributions set by the state. The healthcare deal is locked in for three years. Given the limitations, are class size increases inevitable? Are teacher layoffs inevitable?
AB: By 2020, we have to have stabilized things for a couple of reasons. We are forecasted to lose about a half a billion dollars this year and roughly the same next year and the next. So cumulatively, we will spend about $1.5 billion more than we take in. We have about $1.2 billion in the bank. So, if we spend $1.5 billion, we run out. That’s math.
So now, what can we do about it? We're going to have to realign resources, meaning less in the center, more at the school site. We're going to have to look at all the sacred cows to see where we can be more efficient. And we will likely need more revenue. We currently receive about $16,000 per student on average. I personally would put funding public education No. 1 on my list. Very few people who would say $16,000 is enough. It needs to be more.
The way we get more is if we and all of our stakeholders have confidence that we use it wisely, that we're achieving a better set of outcomes, so more students are becoming proficient and knowledgeable, and we can convince the general public to support us.
SU: Let's talk about the United Teachers Los Angeles contract negotiations. The union recently declared an impasse, and teachers will hold a strike vote this month. LAUSD has budgeted in the same 6 percent raises that it is giving administrators and other school workers. Some people have suggested that the union chief is intent upon striking no matter what the district offers. Do you think that’s true?
AB: I'd be the last probably to be able to tell you the motives of UTLA leadership. But let me just state a few facts. First, we have budget challenges. We've shared those. UTLA has not refuted them. We have been at the table for a year and a half. UTLA’s position is virtually identical to what it was a year and a half ago. You could put it into three buckets. The first is a set of values about the community we serve [involving immigration and community green space] that we actually agree with, but it's not what schools do. So they have removed those from their list of demands.
There's a second bucket that I'll call control over the worksite. For instance, UTLA would like to have fewer magnet schools. We think magnets are one of the best things we have going. Enrollment in magnets has increased more than 35 percent over the last five or six years. Parents are choosing them. Student outcomes are very good in magnets. There are waitlists for magnets. We want more.
They think that UTLA leadership should decide what tests students take. We already have the state involved, the federal government involved. We do not believe this is something that we would, should or could bargain with labor over.
And then there is a grouping of things that are economic. They would like lower class sizes. So would we. They'd like a counselor in every school. So would we. They cost money, okay? They’d like raises [larger than what other employees are getting in their new contracts]. On the economic issues, if you add up what they proposed as a package -- they told us this is a package, take it or leave it -- the entire package would cost about $1 billion a year. We had no choice but to say no. If we had said yes, we would be bankrupt right now. We'd be under state receivership.
SU: When other California government entities have gone bankrupt in the past, employee health benefits have been cut or taken away entirely.
AB: Under California law, we go into receivership. With a $1.5 billion hole, we run out of money. So only two things can happen then. Either the state makes a special appropriation to Los Angeles only, which I don't think is likely. So you're left with some outsider making a series of draconian cuts. So I look at it and say, they seem to want an impasse. They made that clear. To what end I'm not sure.
SU: It sounds like they want to strike, and that is going to impact kids. How are you going to deal with that?
AB: It goes back to community values. Does a strike benefit students? Does a strike benefit parents? Does a strike benefit the community? Does a strike benefit the members? My mom was a teacher for many years, part of strike votes at different points in her career. And one should always ask the question, what is the strike about? Is it about the series of economic demands, which couldn't be met even if Santa Claus came down and said, "Santa Claus can bargain for the district." Santa's sleigh does not have a billion and a half dollars in it.
SU: Is there a chance they're trying to force the state to provide more funding?
AB: The last time I looked, the state’s not in this bargaining. What we have proposed, and what we have agreed to with all of the other bargaining units, is together, let's go to the state. We should be working together, so that by 2020 we have made the case to the public at large, to the voters, that we need additional resources. This will wind up being something on a ballot in 2020. And we should be working to build support for it.
I fail to see how a strike builds support for that. It’s pretty clear to me the interests of the students, the parents, the communities we serve and every one of our employees – teachers included – that we’re all better off if we can avoid a strike. We have settled on a fair basis with our other bargaining units for approximately 6 percent [raises]. We hope we can reach a fair resolution with UTLA.
SU: Kids are obviously greatly impacted by these contract talks. Why aren’t parents given a seat at the table to represent the interests of kids?
AB: That's a good question. I view this table we're sitting at – everyone belongs at this table. We should be open, and a parent – they should sit at this table. If parents tell us we want fewer magnets, we will have fewer magnets. If parents tell us we want more, then we will fight like heck to make sure we have more. So they should be engaged with us, and anything we can do to better inform parents about what's working and what's not working, we think we’ll have a better outcome.
SU: Parents often feel like they're shouting into the wind. They have no systemic power that gives their voices any weight.
AB: They do have power. They can vote. They should vote.
SU: Definitely, although undocumented parents cannot vote in LA school Board elections, and we have a lot of undocumented parents in L.A. Unified.
AB: Undocumented parents have friends, neighbors, colleagues who are voters. So their ability to influence the outcome is making their voice heard loudly and consistently. We think they have a good message, which is they're advocating for their child, the student. We’re going to try to do a better job of sharing what we think is important in the contract and how we can change things. We need parents in that room with us, making more informed, better choices.
SU: What our parents tell us they want more than anything is a quality teacher. But at the lowest performing schools, teachers are rarely evaluated, and when they are, they almost unanimously get great reviews. Something's wrong with that system.
AB: The greatest determinant in that student's success is the quality of the teacher, no question. You have a management and a labor challenge. Are we here to protect the one teacher who probably should not be in the classroom? Or are we here to make sure the 99.9 percent of teachers who are doing a good job have the support they need? We and our labor partners might disagree on that.
SU: This concept of “must-place” teachers is confounding to parents. The Board recently decided that the bottom 25 percent of the schools won’t have to take teachers that no one wants to hire, but that means somebody else will. Some districts nearby just buy these teachers out out. Why can't LAUSD deal with this and say that no school should be forced to take a teacher that nobody wants?
AB: That's a very good question.
SU: You probably can't do that unilaterally without Board support. But aside from exempting them from taking must-place teachers, how else can we improve the performance of chronically low-performing schools that have no real accountability?
AB: I find the label itself objectionable. Chronically underperforming restaurants go out of business. Chronically underperforming doctors don't have patients because the patients go somewhere else or expire. So how did it ever get to this point? We have to do something very different. Other districts, other states, other school leaders have done some different things, and we're going to have to.
SU: Are you talking about closing schools?
AB: Other states have done that. By “meaningfully different,” I don't know what it is yet. [The] incremental change hasn't worked. Re-labeling it, calling it something else hasn't worked. We know what hasn't worked, so we should be a lot bolder. If we only did one thing during my tenure here, assuming we stay solvent, it would be that. Because when you disaggregate the data, that's where the challenge lies. It's those students who come in struggling, and they leave struggling. We can't let that continue.
SU: You mentioned that a district restructuring, re-imagining is underway. Can you tell us what that’s going to look like?
AB: If you think of the school district today, organized around a top-down, compliance-driven organization, the power is in the center. Rules emanate from the center. Budgets emanate from the center. Let's start back with that student we began our conversation with. Let's build a school around him or her. Let's figure out how to adequately resource the school [and get] the community to support that school.
If we look at [a school] as part of the community defined by freeway boundaries, geography, demographics, programs, you'd find a community of schools. The local people, the parents, the local community can better engage schools in their neighborhood, as opposed to trying to connect Chatsworth and San Pedro, which are many, many miles apart, somehow connected through [LAUSD headquarters at] Beaudry. That doesn't make sense.
We have 500,000 students in traditional public schools, 100,000-and-something in charter public schools broken down into six “local” districts. But that's only “local” because it's less than the whole. Each of those has roughly 100,000 students. They’re ginormous. And look at the geographies: Local District South starting in San Pedro all the way up to Gardena. Very few people would think of that as a community. Local District West from the Palisades to Watts. For us to be truly accountable to a local community, we need to have local schools. What we have was sort of built from the top-down as opposed to from the bottom up. I want to rebuild it from the bottom up, and I think we’re going to find some things we can do that are more responsive to that student, that school.
SU: Are there areas in the bureaucracy that are ripe for cutting?
AB: I think there are. I prefer to think of it as redeploying to the school. Decentralizing, not just for the sake of decentralizing, [but] putting the decision making closer to the student, closer to the school with the right level of oversight and accountability. And I think transparency is a great place to start. So, in the coming weeks, we’re going to make sure folks have access to the information.
SU: What kind of information are we going to get?
AB: Whatever you want to see. That’s important because there shouldn’t be questions in the community. I also think that disaggregating what happens in LA Unified is really important because we serve students in 700 square miles. Each of those student’s daily life journeys is very different. Open data is going to help us figure out where our needs are greatest.
SU: The Board passed a Kids First resolution last July, saying everything the district does has to be examined for how it affects kids, and their needs must be put first. There was supposed to be an analysis of every Board action, but we haven’t really seen that implemented, and there’s no enforcement mechanism. Should parents have some legal mechanism to challenge LAUSD policies that don’t put kids first?
AB: I’m not the best one to comment on the law, but when we make commitments to our parents, our students and the community, we should live up to those commitments.
SU: The Board also passed a performance framework evaluation to help parents understand how their schools are doing, and it directed LAUSD to create a working group with parents to develop that. What’s happening with that?
AB: It’s underway. Parents will be a part of everything we do. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to be sharing more information about the district as a whole and the ability to break it down by an individual school or type of school. That becomes a foundation piece for the performance framework. The goal is making sure everyone knows where the good schools are in their community.
SU: Are there any other plans or priorities you want to share?
AB: Sometimes the best path to improve something is to make it simpler, easier to understand, eliminate red tape, regulations and rules. So we’re not on a search for some magic dust. Let’s focus. Let’s simplify. Let’s make sure the programs that we do have are making a difference. Let’s support those. Let’s simplify the job of the principal, to be in the classroom, be present with the parents, to not have to deal with the bureaucracy. Let’s make sure the teachers are paid fairly, are supported in the work they do, have the training they need and are given the autonomy and the time to develop a relationship with their students. To help the individual student become proficient and knowledgeable. To me, there’s virtue in simplicity and clarity and focus, not necessarily a search for yet another magic solution.