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LA Unified alerts central office staff of possible cuts

LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King visits an eighth grade history class at Luther Burbank Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 during the first day of instruction.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King visits an eighth grade history class at Luther Burbank Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 during the first day of instruction.

Los Angeles Unified school officials formally notified hundreds of administrators and support staffers working in the district's central office on Wednesday that their current positions might be eliminated in July.

In making those notifications, L.A. Unified leaders laid the groundwork to potentially act upon their current plans to slash central administrative budgets in the nation's second-largest school system next year by $86.5 million, a reduction of roughly 25 percent.

On Tuesday, district officials released a list of 300 central office positions — ranging from secretaries, payroll specialists and stock clerks to high-level administrators — that district leaders are considering eliminating.

If L.A. Unified does eliminate those positions, the employees who occupy them likely won't be out of the job altogether. Most have contractual rights to move into jobs elsewhere in the district, according to Juan Flecha, president of the union representing the district's principals and administrators, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

"It is always painful," school board president Steve Zimmer said in a statement, "to issue notices of potential changes in positions to our L.A. Unified family. Our hope is that this student achievement centered approach will better align support closer to the classroom — both accelerating academic outcomes and minimizing ultimate job loss."

By law, school district officials must notify employees their position might be eliminated by March 15. It's not uncommon for L.A. Unified to inform employees of possible cuts in March —which gives more flexibility to district budget-writers — but to ultimately leave employees' positions intact in the final budget in June.

But Flecha said there are signs this year might be different.

He said about 140 administrators his union represents have reported their supervisor told them "their position will not be there fore the 2017-18 school year."

Cheryl Simpson, L.A. Unified's director of budget services and financial planning, said she might be able to explain at least some of these conversations with supervisors. The L.A. County Office of Education, which oversees the district's budget, asked for a list of positions the district was considering for elimination — which Simpson said is different from past years.

"For us to attach a list of positions to a public document— it was only right that we should notify the employees that are in those positions," Simpson said, "that this job title has been selected for a part in the reduction. It wasn't so much about telling that individual employee they would be losing a job."

But while the impact on individual employees is not yet clear, Simpson said the district is firm in its cost-cutting target: $86.5 million, and she said officials are "targeting this number for implementation as a part of the 2017-18 budget."

L.A. Unified's ranks of central office staff have grown even as the district's student enrollment has declined. Even though the district projects it will finish this fiscal year in the black, Superintendent Michelle King has said L.A. Unified must begin making smaller reductions to district staff in the near-term to avoid the need for draconian staff cuts in the event of some future fiscal crisis.

Even the district's rosiest public projection suggests L.A. Unified will have slid into a $395 million deficit by 2018-19.

But officials say there's a deeper goal to the proposed central office reductions: "decentralization."

King has often spoken of her desire to move more money and employees from L.A. Unified's downtown headquarters into the district's regional offices or to school campuses. In an effort to spur conversations about this goal, one school board member has even asked to study the feasibility of selling L.A. Unified's central office building.

"Making investments in our schools is a very wise choice," said Simpson. "We’re doing a reduction and we’re decentralizing resources to our school sites and our local districts."

Zimmer's statement calls the budget plan important "for both efforts to achieve long-term financial stability and for the superintendent's efforts to move both resources and decisions closer to the classroom and the school site."

But Flecha is less certain of the wisdom behind decentralization.

"I want to be fair," said Flecha, who was a teacher and principal in the district for 27 years before assuming his union role. "I see the value of decentralizing fiscal and human resources. And it sounds good and it looks good — just like the [superintendent's] strategic plan.

"However," he went on, "there never seems to be a meaty strategy or a strategy that is thoughtful, and more than thoughtful, that is clearly communicated to everyone in the organization that it's going to affect."

Flecha said he's perplexed about why the cuts are affecting administrators and support staff; teachers make up more of the district’s workforce, but none of them received March 15 reduction-in-force notices.

L.A. Unified's central office budget totals around $338 million, said Simpson, out of a total operating budget of more than $7.6 billion.