LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner: ‘We All Need to Communicate Better'

Superintendent Austin Beutner (center) joins Board Member George McKenna (left) and City Council President Herb Wesson in an art class at Crenshaw High the first day of school.

Superintendent Austin Beutner (center) joins Board Member George McKenna (left) and City Council President Herb Wesson in an art class at Crenshaw High the first day of school.

Speak UP sat down with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner during the first week of school to discuss changes he’s made at the district during his first year on the job, ways to increase funding, the future of public charter schools and whether parents should expect the next round of union negotiations to lead to more strikes.

Speak UP: There have been some layoffs at LAUSD this month. You've also been restructuring some things at district headquarters, and Special Ed is now under another department. What’s going on?

Beutner: We have put together Student Health and Human Services and Special Ed. We think of those as support for students. In the past, Special Ed has been thought of as its own school system, in effect. You get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan], you're going to Los Angeles Unified, but you're really in a different school system. We want it more integrated with everything we do. So in Local District East here, there are students with IEPs, there are students without IEPs. They're all part of the same system. Many of them need social-emotional support. So we've created the role for a Chief Equity Officer, and that team's responsibility is to deliver the supports the student needs. That support might be extra lesson time, an IEP. It might be counseling because there's trauma at home or trauma in their life, but that's support. To achieve equity, it means the support is there to meet student needs. It might come technically from an IEP or from a different place. Same team doing the work, we've just put them together because there's a lot of cross-collaboration between those teams. Within the Boyle Heights family, there's someone whose responsibility is to bring the services of both of those efforts to this set of schools.  

Speak UP: You did something similar with the foster youth program that created a lot of brouhaha at the board over a matter of months. What finally did happen?   

Beutner: We have a diseconomy being big. If you sat down with the principal at Utah elementary and said, “What are you trying to do from a social-emotional standpoint?” You're trying to connect one adult in the school with that child. Before you put a label on the adult -- they’re a counselor for this or a counselor for that -- if that's our goal, having five different flavors of adults arrive at a school with that same child? That foster child may be having attendance issues. If we were a high school, they might have an A through G counselor [for college prep course requirements]. Add another component, that may be an EL [English Learner]. So fractions of adults trying to connect with that same child, some of whom are pulling the child out of the classroom. Each interaction needs its own set of paperwork. The four kind of flying in like it's LAX. The only commonality is the runway. They're not really talking to each other. That's not the best way to do it. So what we're trying to do is say, let's think about the need of the student. If there's a strong relationship that the foster counselor has with a child, we want to respect that and advance it further. But let's let that foster counselor be the one that coordinates the A-G, the attendance help.  It's better connecting the support we have. We're working through this with the folks who do the work. It will provide more support, not less support. Caseloads are not going to get any bigger. Some of our team will need to retrain. We're going to add to their professional portfolio to help them get there. But our goal would be to develop the strongest relationship we can with each student, with one or more adults in this school, but not have fractions floating around that don't truly do the best we can for that student.  

Speak UP: Why do you think it created such upset? Was there a communication issue? Is it more work for certain employees?  

Beutner: I think it's all of the above. I go back to building trust in the community. As a system, we don't communicate well externally, so it's complex. Is it being talked to internally but not externally? Is it communicated in language that everyone can understand? The obvious question: Is this more or less helpful for that child? Or if I've got a foster counselor, is it going to strengthen the relationship or hurt the relationship? We should be able to address those right up front. Maybe it wasn't communicated as well as it could have been. That's learning. 

Speak UP: Do you take responsibility for that? Do you feel like you need to better communicate with the people in LAUSD? 

Beutner: There are 60-some-odd-thousand people working here. We serve communities with 5 million people. I can set an example for those who work in the school district. We all need to communicate better. We have a strong leader in our Health and Human Services department, Pia Escudero. Pia is the one I count on to make sure all those who are doing the counseling are in communication. Families who have questions, those in the foster community who have questions, I think that responsibility ultimately lies with Pia and that team to say, "This is what we're doing and why we're doing it." I am not the only communicator of the Los Angeles Unified, and I believe the path to better engagement with communities is more people communicating. Again, much like I think the answer for the school is not top-down, one-size-fits all, I don't have all the answers. I shouldn't have all the answers on this. We've got great people in Health and Human Services. Let's let them talk. Let's let them answer directly the challenge or the opportunity that people might have about change like this.

You change anything in a complex system, especially with a decade or more of trauma, those in the system and those outside the system have a reason to be distrustful because it either hasn't worked in the past, or it's changed for the sake of change so many times that people lose trust. You lose trust internally and externally. One of the ways to address that is to have more communication and more people doing the communication. It's not going to be the center telling you, "Here's how we think it's working." It's going to be those in the community.  

Speak UP: Can you talk about the shifts you’ve also made around parent engagement? Parents often feel like they’re dealing with this huge bureaucracy and they don't know how to get complaints addressed. 

Beutner: Let's use South Gate as an example. It's in the Southeast reach of our school district. Engaging in the center should be about policy, for the most part. The center should deal with something that has consequences for 1,386 schools and the students in those schools. An issue a family has about their school or schools serving their community is best nested in South Gate. Parent engagement as a central activity will continue for the policy stuff. We're [also] creating in each of these six [neighborhood communities of schools] within Local District East advisory groups. The idea is to bring families right into the South Gate family of schools to address probably 90% of what the issues are they have. They want to engage in the Local Control Accountability Plan, to be part of that LCAP conversation right in the community in which they live. As we think about parent engagement, it has to be much closer to the school.

Speak UP: Union negotiations were pretty tough last year, and they're beginning again. Should parents be concerned that we're going to see an endless series of these strikes, given LAUSD’s financial situation?

Beutner: Let’s look at where we are aligned. What did we do in the second half of the school year? We built the broadest, deepest, most diverse coalition in support of public education in a generation. Myself, the head of SEIU, the head of UTLA doing a lot of public appearances together [campaigning for Measure EE], talking about the same set of things. Identifying the root cause of some of the frustration that those who do the work feel. Now, it's the role of any labor partner, they're going to advocate for the needs of their particular members. We try to address those as best we can in some constructive fashion. But if you go to root cause of a lot of the frustration. You starve any organization of human capital, those who are left are going to be really frustrated. They are and they should be. But that's beyond the scope and scale of a school district to solve. What discretion do we actually have as a school district around things as to total wage when it's set at the state level? The ed code is four times the length of the Bible. The rules are set in Sacramento, the funding set in Sacramento. Frustration with a school district, it's a place that it manifests itself, but let's go to Sacramento together and try and get that stuff changed.  

Speak UP: Well, there's the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative to change Prop 13 property tax rates for commercial property owners, and you have suggested we should expect another local ballot measure in 2020.

Beutner: I don't believe the legislature is going to enact legislation which says $16,000 [in per pupil funding] becomes $18,000. They don't have the budget to do it. They've not done it for decades. I don't think it happens that way in California. Taxpayers, voters are asked to [vote on propositions], parcel taxes, bonds. So any sea change in funding is going to happen at the ballot. Whether that sea change in 2020 is local or statewide, we have not determined. So when I say something will be on the ballot, I believe something will be on the ballot. 

Speak UP: But not more than one competing measure? 

Beutner: No, of course not. Communities and Schools First is technically not on the ballot. It may be on the ballot because I read they're going to re-collect signatures. There may be other things. CSBA [California Schools Boards Association] has put forth a proposal. We'll see what emerges. I have strong conviction that we and that same coalition that came together for Measure EE will support our best chance to increase funding for public education. It could be on the state ballot, it could be on a local ballot. It would be my job to make a recommendation to our board. 

Speak UP: You can't control the funding you get, but LAUSD spends more on health benefits than any other district in the state. If employees moved to the lowest cost health plan, the district could save $169 million a year. We could potentially use that to raise the minimum teacher salary to around $80,000. We could spend the money to compensate employees more at the start of their careers to help attract new teachers and help them better afford housing. Are there any conversations with the unions about that? We suspect a lot of young teachers would prefer to take that compensation upfront in salary now rather than having the priciest health plan or delaying rewards until 30 years of service.

Beutner: Los Angeles Unified as a technical matter negotiates salary and health benefits on different cycles. That's the system I inherited.  

Speak UP: Can that be changed?

Beutner: With the consent of both parties. It takes two to decide to change any of those factors. Where we’ll wind up at the end, I couldn't prejudge that. We're in conversations all the time with our partners about how we make it better, how we provide for the best total wage we can for all of our employees. There are other factors. We've mentioned real estate as if it's separable. One of the things we're looking at is to see if we can't do something around affordable housing in scale. We've got a big footprint. Maybe we can use that footprint to provide a lot more affordable housing and direct it towards our employees. And that could be part of a total package of wage. That could be a real material benefit that could help provide continuity and stability in our workforce, which is important for us. So we're trying to be creative about it, use all of the assets we have. And certainly, real estate is one of those assets. 

Speak UP: There was going to be a task force report on real estate and a plan on real estate. What happened to that?

Beutner: It’s coming shortly. Weeks away, not a year away.

Speak UP: How are you going to assure parents that their children are going to get the best possible education in district-run schools while at the same time respecting their right to choose other school options? Especially in light of a board resolution calling on the state to consider a charter moratorium and state legislation being considered that affects the future of charter schools.

Beutner: The state sets the rules. We provided testimony to the Superintendent of Public Instruction's Task Force. I think those recommendations were provided to the governor's office and the legislature. They continue to consider a series of bills. I have said that I do believe in choice. I'm a product of choice, a different type of choice, because my parents would work more jobs to try to pick the best school district they could to live in. At the same time, all the enabling legislation around choice is decades old, and we still have a charter set of rules that referred to API [test scores]. That's long gone. If we're meant to implement a set of state rules, I think more clarity in those rules would be helpful to all of us who do the work. But that policy is set in Sacramento. We should implement it with fidelity. I believe my responsibility is to make sure that every school within our boundaries is a great school. Held to the same highest standards, making sure all the money intended to be invested in students in that school is invested in students in that school and nowhere else. And if we're doing that, I think a lot of the friction in the system will be reduced. 

Speak UP: Speaking of friction, there’s a lot of it around charter co-location and Prop 39, the law that gives public charter schools equal access to public school space. Is there a way to reduce that friction? There's a proposal at the board to take the money that charters pay LAUSD in rent and give it directly to the homeschool sharing space so that the homeschool benefits financially from co-location and to incentivize cooperation. Do you think that that's a good idea?

Beutner: You're more informed than I am on what the board is considering. Prop 39 creates friction in the system, no question. So a clear set of rules would help. Looking forward over the medium and long term and not just month-to-month will help. Looking at how we balance how real estate is used. We have under-enrolled charter schools and under-enrolled traditional schools, and there's got to be a way to make some sense of that. 

Speak UP: Is there enough room for everybody? We've had enrollment decline by roughly 14,000 a year, and I think only 2000 or so of those students are going to charters.

Beutner: There ought to be a way over a period of months and years, not weeks, that we can reduce some of the friction in the system. Looking at how we use space, how we support schools. And going back to your number about declining enrollment, the County has told us a decade from now we'll have materially fewer students. Because of the declining birth rate, because of the cost of living in Los Angeles, irrespective of the type of school or the governance model of the school that a student goes to. If that's what we're looking at, we have to plan for that over years, not plan for just next year. This real estate report would be a start to that. It'll be a start to working with this Boyle Heights family of schools because that's the community we should be planning around to see, what do we think a decade from now, Boyle Heights will look like?

Speak UP: Is this the fundamental budget problem too? We've got a lot of employees reaching retirement age and a lot of benefits coming due right at the same moment that we have declining birth rates and people moving out. Is there a fundamental mismatch in the way schools are funded per pupil and the demographics of the workers, versus the number of students available to pay for benefits that LAUSD never set aside money to fund? 

Beutner: You've got a couple of challenges: $29,000 [per pupil funding in new York] and $16,000 [in California] are different. That's a problem. And we're seeing the cumulative impact of that problem. It didn't just start this year.  You starve something, and you see it in facilities, you see it in programs, you see it in the ability to train the next generation of folks who work in your schools. You have a state system that hasn't funded for the future. Your pension side, which is all state-run, benefits were increased 20 years ago. The work’s been done to earn those benefits, and no money was set aside. You have increasing costs for the same benefit where no money was set aside, and that cost is being passed on to schools here. So there we’re paying for, in effect, past work. You have a challenge more local in that the same system was set up for health benefits in Los Angeles Unified, and no money was set aside to pay those. You’ve got the pension long-cycle problem. You have the health benefit long-cycle problem. We're not having a moral conversation about whether the benefits are right. It was promised and earned, but both at the pension level and the health level, nobody set aside the money 20 years ago to pay for it. Combine that with the gap between 16 and 29. We've got a real problem.

Speak UP: So we need more money. We know that. But if you're a parent with a kid going into kindergarten and choosing a school, given these problems, what do you say to them about why they should come to LAUSD schools and trust that it's going to be okay? 

Beutner: We're doing the best we can. Come to a school. Come meet with that principal who is out front, where everybody knows that principal and she’s engaged, children feel safe and welcome. They're getting a good education. We're making progress. We want to make more progress, we want to accelerate the pace of progress, but we're making progress. 

— Jenny Hontz and Esmeralda Fabian

This is part three of a three-part interview. Part one can be found here and part two here.