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Where's the money at LA Unified?

Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- The message has been clear for months from the president of the Los Angeles teachers union: Not only does the L.A. Unified School District have no deficit, it has a huge reserve, more than large enough to meet the union's demands for higher wages, smaller classes and schools staffed every day with the supportive services they need.

That's partly true: The district hasn't recently had deficits, but Alex Caputo-Pearl is ignoring future projections.

L.A. schools Superintendent Austin Beutner has seemed just as certain when he declares the district on the brink of insolvency.

That could be true, but if it is, why is the district able to offer any pay raises?

In the intense dispute between Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles, hyperbole, passion and spin have often trumped fairness, moderation and neutrality.

That's been especially the case in the tense immediate run-up to a teachers' strike that is set to begin Monday in the nation's second-largest school system. After the district made a new offer Friday, which the union quickly rejected, no further negotiations were scheduled for the weekend. Meanwhile, 31,000 union members readied to walk picket lines as the district scrambled to keep schools open with substitutes, reassigned office workers and skeletal staff.

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For the teachers, this strike is about more than money. They are concerned about the direction of education and their place in it. But money remains central: What can the district afford to do? And, within those parameters, what are district leaders willing to do?

It hasn't helped that the dispute has gotten personal, with the union attacking Beutner's motives and Beutner taking actions that have angered union leaders. Each side has made questionable assertions and offered misleading interpretations of what the other side has said.

The union says the district can afford to pay for much more. It points to last year's ending reserve of nearly $2 billion, the largest in district history. The school system points to projections that show potential insolvency in three years.

Both sides have data to back them up.

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