Beutner Calls For More Transparency and Touts Graduation Rate

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner delivered his State of Schools address Thursday morning, vowing to support school leaders in the hard work of ensuring every student in the district gets the best possible education, and announcing an all-time record high graduation rate surpassing 78% for the Class of 2019.

“Quite an improvement from 62% just a decade ago,” Beutner said to the nearly 2,000 school administrators, district officials and representatives from community organizations that help LAUSD who attended the annual event held at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles. Only about a dozen parent representatives were present.

Board President Richard Vladovic, who spoke briefly before Beutner, asked the principals in the audience to partner with parents in helping students succeed in this new school year. “More than ever, it’s important that we welcome parents and we make them feel safe,” he said.

Beutner spoke for just shy of 20 minutes but addressed many of the challenges the district faces, including its dire finances and the persistent achievement gap for certain student groups such as English learners and special education students.

“While there is talent in every seat in every classroom in every one of the 1,386 schools in Los Angeles Unified, there is not always opportunity,” Beutner said.

“At some schools, almost 40% of students are chronically absent, at others 20% are homeless, and at some schools, 80% of students who enter kindergarten are not at that same school by fifth grade,” he said.

“The poverty in many of the communities we serve is very real and directly impacts our schools.”

For the 2019-2020 school year, said Beutner, the district will direct an additional $250 million to the highest-needs schools.

Beutner said that the district’s goal for the new school year is to be more transparent, build trust with stakeholders, and create continuity and stability for students and district employees. 

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“Disruption is not what [students] need,” he said. “Dramatic plans haven’t worked elsewhere and won’t work in L.A. Unified… Our schools should not be test kitchens where the recipe is changed every 24 months. We need to focus on what works and stay with it.”

“We have hard work ahead to build trust and we have to start with more transparency in all we do,” he said. “And we must separate fact from fiction.” 

Myth number one, said Beutner, is that the district has plenty of money. “L.A. Unified is already spending more than it receives in funding from the state and federal government,” he said. “That practice can’t continue as L.A. Unified will soon run out of savings and be looking at cuts, not increases, in spending.” 

Last year alone, said Beutner, the district cut administrative costs by more than $100 million through a combination of layoffs and procurement savings. Another nearly $100 million in healthcare costs was cut by negotiating with labor partners.

Beutner made clear that one of the greatest and most urgent challenges for the district is finding more funding. Currently, he said, 97% of all district spending is at schools. But the pot simply isn’t big enough.  “We still need to tackle benefit costs which continue to outpace state funding,” Beutner said. The district previously stated that retiree benefits were taking up about 30% of the budget.  

“We know we can increase literacy if we provide additional focused intervention,” he said. “To do this in every elementary school would cost $60 million. We know it takes $5 million more to provide a full-time nurse in every middle school. Budgets are not just numbers on a page. The needs of our students are very real.”

Beutner noted that the past school year was “very far from the ordinary,” citing the January teachers strike. He also talked about the defeat of Measure EE.  

“Let’s roll the clock back to January,” he said. “Polls said 80% of people supported the need for better pay, smaller class sizes and more, much-needed support in schools… 69% said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to provide the money for this. But in June, less than half of those who voted were willing to pay about 75 cents a day to support local schools.”

Despite some of the sobering statistics, Rosa Elena Andresen, an LAUSD parent whose daughter attends Pacific Boulevard Elementary, and one of several Speak UP members in the audience, called Beutner’s speech inspiring.

“It brought a lot of hope and good feeling and ideas about the new school year,” said Andresen, who is currently a member of her daughter’s school council. “Usually, we just focus on the negative and we fail to recognize what good we have in our district. We have very good principals, very good teachers, students and administrators.” 

The State of Schools address will be transmitted at KLCS-TV at 1 p.m. on Friday, August 16, 6 p.m. Saturday, August 17, and 7 a.m. Sunday, August 18.

The Superintendent’s full remarks can be found here, while more information about the indicators for progress and sources for the data is available here.

-Esmeralda Fabian