LAUSD’s Unions Could Support Policies to Help All Californians

Here we go again. The Los Angeles Unified School District employees are moving closer to going on strike. We saw this as recently as 2019, when the United Teachers of Los Angeles went on strike. They got modest wage increases for their efforts but left the district in worse financial condition.

This year it’s the LAUSD’s service workers, represented by the SEIU, threatening to strike, claiming the district has $4.9 billion in reserves. LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has flatly contradicted that figure, stating “We’re not sitting on $5 billion worth of reserves, and to say that is inspiring false hope — period. I stand by it.”

“Reserves” turns out to be a somewhat ambiguous number. While there may be an impressive sounding amount of unallocated cash available today, the district is projected to spend about $1 billion more than it will take in over the next two fiscal years, and already anticipated increases to staffing and new programs will reduce the unallocated portion of that $4.9 billion.

According to the SEIU, the average annual salary for the 30,000 LAUSD service workers they represent is $25,000. About 75 percent of the members work fewer than eight hours per day, and with school in session only 180 days, or 36 weeks per year, even many of the workers with full-time hours are off for up to 16 weeks per year.

Union representatives themselves acknowledge LAUSD’s reliance on a part-time workforce. But it raises an uncomfortable question that applies to teachers as well: If K-12 schools in California only operate for the equivalent of 36 full weeks per year, is it reasonable for people working in these schools to expect to earn enough to cover the full year of expenses? Similarly, if some of the service jobs only require a worker for a few hours each day, how can they possibly afford to pay for a full day of work?

These are difficult questions. But LAUSD, and the unions representing LAUSD’s workers, have to start by recognizing that if there were an efficient way to convert every part-time worker to full-time work, thousands of part-time workers would have to be let go. And until California’s public schools require not 36 weeks per year of active service, but the 48 weeks which is typical in the private sector, they should not expect to receive annual pay equivalent to what people in similar jobs make in the private sector.

Whether or not there is enough cash today to grant the LAUSD’s service workers the 30 percent wage increase they’re demanding, the long-term financial outlook of the district remains troubled. The average annual pension and benefit package for a full-career LAUSD retiree in the CalSTRS system in 2021 was over $77,000. Meanwhile, the funded status of CalSTRS on June 30, 2022 was a dismal 67 percent. CalSTRS is staring down an unfunded liability of $104 billion. This translates into a huge financial burden on LAUSD. In their current budget, 12 percent will go to CalSTRS, over $2 billion. As CalSTRS copes with a moribund stock market, real estate values that are topping out, and the attenuating burden of DEI restrictions on where they can place their investments, expect that number to rise.

LAUSD receives funds based on student attendance, like all public schools in California, and how much that per student rate has gone up is tied to the state’s general fund budget. According to reports downloaded from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), and after adjusting for inflation and for population growth, the state’s general fund budget is up 84 percent compared to just ten years ago. Put another way, the state’s per capita general fund spending in the current fiscal year is just under $6,000 per California resident, and ten years ago — in 2022 dollars — it was just over $3,000 per resident.

This increase translates into vastly more funds for LAUSD, because 38 percent of all General Fund expenditures go to K-14 public education in California. When general fund spending goes up, school districts get 38 percent of the increase. In the case of LAUSD, however, the increase over the past ten years has been equally dramatic. Their General Fund expenditures in 2012-13 were $5.8 billion. In their 2022-23 adopted budget, the General Fund projection is $12.6 billion, a doubling in just ten years. Meanwhile, enrollment at LAUSD is down below 600,000 this year, lower than it’s been in over 30 years. Where did the money go?

The unions representing SEIU membership in LAUSD may or may not get the windfall they’re demanding. But along with their need to perpetually negotiate wage increases that keep up with California’s exploding cost-of-living, they have to recognize that the nature of work in California’s public schools necessitates a lot of part-time, partial year employment. Until that structural obstacle is somehow overcome, they’re pushing water uphill.

They might also recognize that California’s state legislature, over which the coalition of public sector unions they are part of exercises overwhelming control, is directly responsible for California being unaffordable for working families. They might support state investment in practical water, power, and transportation infrastructure, such as we saw back in the Pat Brown days. These investments paved the way for an oversupply of homes and abundant, cheap water and power. That is a path to prosperity for everyone in the state, and an inspiring objective that these unions have the power to make a reality.

An edited version of this article appeared as a guest op-ed in the Orange County Register.

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