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That sucking sound is LAUSD doing business as usual - Pacific Research Institute

That sucking sound is LAUSD doing business as usual

WHEN the Los Angeles Unified School District unveiled its opulent $578 million Robert F. Kennedy High School, the most expensive government-run K-12 school in this nation’s history, it was not just an isolated PR disaster. Rather, it was only the latest evidence that the floundering district is like a vacuum cleaner with its hose wedged firmly in the back pocket of taxpayers.

The RFK High School, located on the site of the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub, has had a troubled history, including a 15-year legal battle with litigants ranging from historic preservationists to Donald Trump. Methane gas on the site required a $33 million mitigation effort. Further, LAUSD voluntarily increased costs by agreeing to employ only union labor, despite evidence from throughout California that such agreements contribute to higher construction costs.

LAUSD also misleads the public on its per-pupil spending figures. The district claims that in 2008 it spent a little more than $10,000 per pupil. Yet, that total did not include bond-financed building costs or interest costs on those bonds.

According to Adam Schaeffer, researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute and author of a study analyzing LAUSD spending, when construction-related and other noncounted costs are included, the district’s real per-pupil funding figure was $29,790. District apologists argue that students perform better in nicer environments, saying in effect that buildings teach. It therefore seems fair to include building costs in per-pupil funding figures. When confronted with this higher amount, LAUSD officials head for the hills.

John Seiler, a reporter for CalWatchdog.com, a project of the Pacific Research Institute, recently contacted LAUSD spokeswoman Lydia Ramos about Schaeffer’s calculation. After denying the figure without citing convincing contrary evidence, Ramos simply hung up. One likely reason for such stonewalling is the long line of fiscal scandals that have plagued LAUSD.

In January, the district’s inspector general found that LAUSD paid $200 million in 2009 to 1,700 employees no longer on the job. LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who has defended the RFK project, refused the local NBC affiliate’s request to appear on camera to comment on the findings. The superintendent condescendingly sent the station an e-mail denying the cost amount, but not the actual payout miscue.

In July, auditors found that unnecessary textbook purchases and other snafus cost the district nearly $10 million from 2008 to February 2010. In one case, half a million dollars worth of unused textbooks sat in a district warehouse for years. More frightening, the audit only sampled 21 high schools in the district. District high schools have an outdated and substandard textbook inventory system, while elementary schools have no system at all. One can only imagine the enormity of district-wide losses.

In June 2009, it was discovered that LAUSD had spent money to pay for more than 900 positions not funded in its budget. This disastrous oversight cost the district $30 million.

In addition to RFK, the district has financed other Taj Mahal schools. The $377 million Edward Roybal Learning Center, opened in 2008, took 20 years to build and was plagued by cost overruns caused by, among other things, undetected earthquake faults and methane gas fields that required millions of dollars in mitigation effort. The school, however, has a dance studio with cushioned maple floors, a restaurant-quality pizza oven and a 10-acre park. All told, just three schools – RFK High School, the Roybal Learning Center and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School – cost nearly $1.2 billion to construct.

Between 2001 and 2007, while much of this spending was going on, district enrollment fell 6 percent. During that time, however, LAUSD administrators increased by nearly 20 percent. The district also continues to pay huge amounts in salaries to teachers kept out of classrooms because of a wide variety of charges.

“L.A. Unified is a tax revenue waste-machine firing on all cylinders; a huge, inefficient, sputtering engine that gulps fuel but gets us nowhere,” says Schaeffer. Pouring more money into LAUSD is like pouring money a black hole. If there was ever a poster boy for giving parents the opportunity, through school-choice options, to escape the government-run school system, LAUSD is it.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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