Either we're missing something here, or this is the biggest no-brainer in the history of L.A. education (teehee, oxymoron).

The Los Angeles Unified School District is facing at least a $408 million budget shortfall for the 2011-12 school year. No matter what, someone — make that many someones — will suffer.

So we're reduced to talking about priorities. And isn't an across-the-board skim off L.A. teachers' hefty health-benefit packages better than laying off thousands of teachers completely, upping class sizes and throwing schoolkids off track?

If both the State Legislature and California taxpayers (yes, that means you) begrudgingly approve Governor Jerry Brown's tax extensions this spring, LAUSD's shortfall will shrink to about $225 million.

Swell! But… that's obviously still a nine-figure problem.

So, at their meeting on Tuesday, the LAUSD Board of Education members decided to issue 7,300 preliminary layoff notices to “district teachers, principals, counselors, nurses and librarians” [LA Daily News]. That includes 5,000 teachers. Not all of them will necessarily be fired, especially if Brown's extra tax money flows in; it's just a state-mandated warning so they can brace for the worst.

But we're confused. Wouldn't they rather let their health benefits pick at their paychecks a teeny bit instead of losing their jobs cold-turkey?

According to the Daily News, all LAUSD employees and their families get 100 percent of their health premiums covered by the district. Over half the school districts in California choose to make their employees pay at least part of that cost.

Currently, employee health benefits drain LAUSD of $1 billion every year, or one-fifth of its total budget. If a mere fraction of those premiums were pulled from employee paychecks, the entire budget deficit would be filled.

The Duffmeister, standing his ground and looking the part

The Duffmeister, standing his ground and looking the part

But that's not up the Board of Education. That's up to a committee comprised of reps from the 12 employee unions who protect L.A. school workers. And, as union heads can be counted on to do, United Teachers of Los Angeles union head A.J. Duffy is standing his ground. From the Daily News:

The committee has amassed a reserve of more than $200 million over which it remains control. …

[But Duffy] said the reserve is supposed to be used to pay for rising health care costs.

“We have an agreement with the district, that any savings due to efficiencies agreed to by the bargaining committee would stay with the committee,” Duffy said.

“Sooner or later we will have use it to offset the increased cost of health benefits.”

However, speaking of priorities, incoming LAUSD Superintendent-to-be John Deasy says that Duffy's are way down the list: “If they share a fractional cost of their premiums, and use their surplus, we could avoid nearly all layoffs and furloughs and bring kids back to school full-time.”

Like we said: Freaking no-brainer. But Duffy can't seem to make the connection. In response to the board's layoff decision on Tuesday, he released this statement:

“This large number of proposed layoffs shows that LAUSD has clearly abandoned its all-too-frequent, and hollow, promise to 'keep cuts away from the classroom.' UTLA demands that the School Board and the superintendent re-evaluate their budget and identify areas of waste and excess to cut. No pot of money or expenditure should be left unexamined. The District's cuts to teachers and support staff year after year have taken their toll on both students and educators and will do permanent harm to students who deserve a world-class education.”

Yeah, well, who but a soulless bastard wouldn't agree with that last part. As for the “pot o' money” Duffy mentions, uh… we know of a pretty fat one that's all but begging to be relieved of its coinage.

“This is the worst thing I've seen after 42 years in education,” board member Richard Vladovic told the Daily News.

Ouch. Still, he voted the budget through on Tuesday. Only two members did not: Steve Zimmer and Margaret LaMotte. We spoke to Zimmer today, who urged us to watch the video of the board meeting (and that's not something he often recommends).

When asked about the premiums in particular, Zimmer took a more broad approach, answering that he thinks that instead of jumping into extreme layoffs, “everything needs to be put on the table… salary cuts, furlough days, health benefits, everything.”

So, in essence, he nods his head yes.

Zimmer adds that there are “areas of significant but less drastic pain” that could be targeted within LAUSD, and says more emphasis needs to be put on raising money — by lobbying and recruiting private-sector dollars — instead of just accepting the state and federal deficit in defeat.

He also tells us the layoffs would take the average kindergarten class size from 24 to 29 students per teacher.

Whereas last year, Zimmer felt like state and city leaders “really took a united approach at climbing the budget mountain together,” he thinks priorities shifted this year.

“The best thing for kids is to have the best teachers in front of them in the classroom,” he says. “That should be the No. 1 concern.” And a mass teacher layoff, he explains, is the most de-stabilizing thing that could possibly happen to those classrooms.

Duffy's secretary says he can't talk today. We'll keep trying, though, because at this point, we're hungry for even a single half-hearted answer as to how 100 percent health premiums could possibly be more important than keeping 5,000 teachers on board.


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