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Pandemic brings unanticipated costs to LAUSD

LOS ANGELES — On the day the Los Angeles Unified School District handed out its 10 millionth free meal since campuses were closed due to coronavirus, Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district is facing $200 million in unanticipated costs due to the pandemic, but the long-term impacts of those costs is still unclear.

The largest chunk of that $200 million is due to the Grab-and-Go Food Centers the district has been operating since campuses closed in mid-March. The centers provide two meals a day to students and their families.

A charitable fund established by Beutner to solicit donations to the district has yielded about $6 million, but the food centers alone have cost the district about $78 million, Beutner said.

“In these extraordinary times, we’ll continue to help all who are in need, and in the absence of a broader food-relief effort by the city or county, we have stepped up to help,” he said during an online address April 20.

The mounting expenses will not immediately push the district’s $7.87 billion general fund into insolvency, but the unbudgeted spending probably violates state law requiring school systems to maintain a three-year balanced budget, the Los Angeles Times reported. Although state officials may relax those rules in the current crisis, they have not committed to covering the costs incurred by L.A. Unified — especially with state tax revenue plummeting.

But Beutner called for public support for additional funds from the state to cover the district’s costs.

“At the outset, we said we’re going to do the right thing for students and families and the right thing for our employees who serve students and families,” he said. “That remains our objective. … It’ll take some time as well as public and parental support to make sure we’re properly reimbursed by local, state and federal governments for these investments we’re making in students and families.”

He said the state, which provides 95% of the district’s funding, is likely to be delayed in finalizing its budget for the coming year, so it’s unclear when the district will learn if it will be reimbursed for its additional spending. But he said the district will continue its programs while that decision awaits.

“In the absence of actions by others, we’ll address the issue and sort out the costs later,” he said.

Beutner told The Times the district is developing an initiative that will focus on younger students, who many experts say have more difficulty staying on track with distance learning. That plan may involve hiring more teachers or otherwise lowering class size, a striking contrast in tone with the remarks of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who called for the furloughs of thousands of city workers April 19. Budget fallout already is evident in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed about $827 million in school cost-saving measures, according to the online publication Chalkbeat.

Unlike the budget for New York City schools, which the mayor controls, the L.A. Unified budget — as in all California districts — is controlled by the state. But the picture is nonetheless grim. California legislative analyst Gabriel Petek predicted a deficit of as much as $35 billion in the near future and an additional $85 billion in fiscal years to come, The Times reported.

Beutner said the district’s additional expenses due to the coronavirus are:

• $78 million for food aid. This is normally reimbursed by the federal government, but L.A. Unified is technically violating restrictions by feeding adults as well as children, The Times reported.

• $50 million for expanded summer school. This will pay for a “distance learning” program to address learning deficits caused by campus closures.

• $31 million for teacher training to prepare for online instruction.

• $23 million to connect students from low-income households to the internet.

• And $9 million for safety equipment and supplies.

From City News Service