What a good time it is to be a public employee in Los Angeles. Weeks after the City Council approved pay raises of up to 22 percent for DWP employees, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Compensation Review Committee went them one better by voting to hand the members of the LAUSD school board a gargantuan 174 percent salary increase.
Granted, the governing body for the nation's second largest school district (and the largest school district with a democratically elected school board) was woefully underpaid. Until yesterday, its seven members made just over $45,000 a year. That's less than the starting salary for LAUSD teachers. Heck, that's less than the starting salary for most journalists covering the school board. Yes, it's that low.
Former school board president Steve Zimmer had to take two separate college teaching jobs just to make ends meet.
"There were a lot of reasons why I lost the recent school board race," Zimmer says, referring to his defeat in May. "But one reason was, I had to work three jobs. And I was running against someone who was able to be a full-time candidate for a year and a half. And that affected the outcome. My life and my world would have been a lot different if I had had that fiscal stability these last eight years. And I think I would have been a better board member."
He adds: "If you look over the last 15 years, either the candidates had to be a retiree or on some kind of pension, they had to be independently wealthy, or they had to be crazy, like me."
Indeed, three of the current board members are retired principals and receive healthy pensions from the school district. According to information provided by the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CALSTRS), Scott Schmerelson receives a pension worth $125,172, Richard Vladovic takes in $154,644, and George McKenna gets $182,280.
Board member Monica Garcia works for the Los Angeles County Probation Department and makes $110,892 per year. As a part-time board member (board members have the option of working full- or part-time), she earns around $26,000 a year from the school district.
On Monday night, the Compensation Review Committee voted unanimously to more than double the school board members' salaries, to $125,000 for full-time board members and $50,000 for part-timers. Those full-timers will now make more than the most senior teachers in the district, who make around $100,000, and more than most principals. School board members will make more than state legislators.
Raising the salaries for seven employees won't make much of a dent in the school district's $7.5 billion. But the optics are not great. The district is expecting massive budget shortfalls in the years to come, thanks to a declining birthrate and the spread of charter schools. Both mean fewer kids for LAUSD to educate, and fewer kids means less money. A 2015 report issued a dire warning: "If the district desires to continue as a going concern beyond [fiscal year] 2019-20, capable of improving the lives of students and their families, then a combination of difficult, substantial and immediate decisions will be required. Failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD, and the loss of local governance authority that comes from state takeover."
The belt-tightening has already begun. Just last month, the board voted to lay off 114 classified employees — teachers aides, accountants, payroll specialists and clerks. Other employees had their hours cut. That's a funny time to accept a pay raise, even if you didn't ask for it.
"I’m conflicted about it," says the board's new president, Ref Rodriguez, "because of where we are financially in the district, as well as where we are in the classrooms. Having said that, I also know the workload to do this job right."
The raises will almost surely have political consequences. They will, on the one hand, attract a slew of candidates to run for the now well-paid positions. They will also, according to longtime political consultant John Shallman, open the incumbents up to all manner of attack ads when they run for re-election.
"I think it would be a very big mistake politically to accept that level of raise, particularly when average folks aren’t getting more than a few percentage point raises," Shallman says. "Doubling or more than doubling your salary is very problematic."
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The raises will also open up Schmerelson, McKenna and Vladovic to charges of "double-dipping" — that is, collecting lucrative pensions and salaries from the same beleaguered institution. Schmerelson, for example, will make more than $250,000 a year. Undeterred, he says he'll accept the raise.
"I don’t consider myself a double-dipper," Schmerelson says. "I earned the pension. I paid into it. It’s not free."
Even those who argued for the raises, like Zimmer, were a bit surprised by the amount of the raise.
"Had I chosen to advocate, I would have advocated to align [salaries] with either the most senior teacher level or beginning administrator level," Zimmer says. "In terms of framing, if you’re asking folks to sacrifice, it helps if you’re not making way, way more than they are."