On May 16th, residents in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will cast their votes in what has become the most expensive school board race in U.S. History. By the time the ballots are in the box, total spending for the race – which centers around two spots on the seven-member board – will have exceeded $11.4 million.
Those familiar with the race say that there is one primary reason that the campaign has become so contentious and expensive, and it doesn’t have to do with classroom time, curriculum, or the health and well-being of the district’s over 640,000 schoolchildren. Rather, candidates are fighting for the ability to influence the terms of several of the district’s largest union contracts, which are set to expire this summer.
As it stands, the current composition of the school board is a 5-2 split between pro-union and reform-minded members, respectively. If the two reform candidates are elected, the balance of the board would swing to a 4-3 split in favor of the reform advocates, leaving the pro-union forces on the board disempowered.
At issue for both sides is the upcoming expiration of 11 union contracts, including the largest contract, which covers the district’s 33,000 teachers. In the past, these contract renewals have served as an opportunity to boost already generous benefits, regardless of the district’s actual ability to pay. While this strategy has been popular with the teachers’ union, it has had some less than ideal results for the district’s finances.
During the last contract renewal, the school board approved a 10 percent raise for teachers – exceeding what the union had asked for – even though the district is facing staggering deficits. In addition to retirement income promised through teacher pension plans, the district offers free lifetime healthcare benefits to both retirees and their dependents. No other large school district offers such a costly benefit, likely because doing so is financially unsustainable. This is certainly the case for LAUSD, which has a $13.6 billion unfunded liability for these healthcare benefits.
Whatever the result of this historically expensive campaign and election, the LAUSD needs to shift focus away from trying to one-up itself with generous, but likely impossible to keep, promises of future benefits for teachers and administrators.
Instead, the school board should focus on a commitment to good stewardship of taxpayer dollars, innovation in the classroom, and outcome-based educational reforms that put students and parents at the center of district policy. And yes, the district should continue offering good benefits to its teachers – but only at a level the district can actually afford.
While the LAUSD situation is extreme, many school districts across the country are facing similar, if slightly less exaggerated, versions of the same problem. In 2014, teacher pension plans nationwide were underfunded by a total of half a trillion dollars. Partly as a result of these massively underfunded plans, school contributions to teacher pensions have doubled – even when adjusting for inflation – over the last 10 years.
This burden is having real impacts on other states, too. In Connecticut, state and local governments may have to increase annual funding of their municipal teachers’ pension fund from $1 billion to $6.2 billion per year over the next 15 years to keep their retirement plans solvent. In Kentucky, the Teachers Retirement Legal Fund has filed suit against the state in efforts to force the state to address the teacher’s retirement plan in that state, which is currently only 51 percent funded.
For our nation’s other school districts, the situation in Los Angeles should serve as a cautionary tale of the damaged caused when a school board focuses on serving the interests of adults over the needs of its students, and what can happen when a school district makes promises it can’t keep.