US public schools are going broke, yet some spend like a kid in a candy store

The $578 million price tag for the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Los Angeles is hard to justify at a time when many schools are turning to desperate measures to save teachers' jobs. Voters must respond by pushing profligate public schools to be as frugal as charter schools.

Faced with the need to make drastic cuts to avoid looming budget holes as federal stimulus money runs out, school districts across the country are resorting to once-unthinkable solutions. Officials are turning to desperate measures to save the jobs of teachers, whose livelihoods were long considered secure.

In Boston, the superintendent has chosen to close nine schools and merge eight others into four buildings in light of a potential $63 million shortfall next year. School officials in Camp Hill, Pa., are so eager to raise funds that they've offered to sell naming rights to their gyms ($250,000 each), the library ($150,000), and even the counseling office ($15,000).

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New studies indicate that thousands of other school districts will be forced to follow suit unless there is another federal infusion of cash. This is troubling because it sends a clear message to children that everything is for sale.

Didn't save for a rainy day

Yet states have to assume their share of responsibility for the way they've used the $100 billion in federal stimulus funds they received soon after President Obama took office. Most of the money – $40 billion – was directed at shoring up the balance sheets of state education systems. The rest supported Title I funding for poor students, programs for disabled students, and smaller programs like the Obama administration's Race to the Top contest.

But according to a 50-state survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures and reported in The New York Times, 20 states said they intended from the very outset to spend all of their stabilization funds in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years. On average, all 50 states spent 86 percent of the federal stimulus money in the past two years, leaving just 14 percent for this year. Such short-sighted budgeting in the midst of the Great Recession is hard to defend.

Whatever sympathy might be felt for schools in these hard times was further dampened by jaw-dropping examples of profligacy in other districts. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second largest, serves as a case study of how to undermine taxpayer confidence when it is desperately needed.

The district spent $578 million – or about $135,000 per student – to construct the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel. This amount made the project the most expensive school ever constructed in US history at a time when the district is flat broke. (Indeed, just last week, the LAUSD school board voted unanimously to seek corporate sponsorships to pay for school programs like sports, music, and art.)

Although the LAUSD committed to this project before the enormity of the recession became apparent, the Kennedy complex is only the latest in the district's building binge of 131 schools.

It calls into question the way taxpayer money is spent. For example, The Wall Street Journal noted that another recently opened public school – the Visual and Performing Arts High School – was originally budgeted at $70 million. It ended up costing $232 million.

Nevertheless, voters in L.A. continue to approve such spending, in the process becoming enablers. Indeed, since 1997, they have OK'd more than $20 billion in school bonds.

The only hard evidence of discontent is the support taxpayers have given to the establishment of charter schools. The LAUSD has more charter schools than any other school system in the country, enrolling about 9 percent of its students. Strictly from a financial viewpoint, charter schools are, without question, a bargain. They can be constructed for a quarter of the cost of most schools in the district.

Charter schools: great bang for the buck

For example, Green Dot Public Schools, a leading charter school operator in the L.A. area, has built seven schools there to serve 4,300 mainly low-income students for a total of less than $85 million. Its graduation rate is nearly twice that of the school district as a whole.

It's true that charter schools don't have to enroll special education students. But there's another factor given short shrift in the debate. Under Proposition 39, which was passed by California voters in 2000, districts are obligated to provide charter schools with facilities that are reasonably equivalent to those of other schools in the district.

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About 60,000 students in the LAUSD attend charter schools. But administrators have dragged their feet on meeting the "reasonably equivalent" standard. They do so by denying charter schools the use of existing facilities. As a result, many have had to rent space. That eats up about 13 percent of their general funds on average, a recent Los Angeles Times commentary notes.

As long as lack of prudence characterizes fiscal policy, school districts everywhere will remain in dire straits. But let's not forget that, ultimately, voters possess the power to demand financial reform. If they don't, then they have no basis for complaint.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. His Reality Check blog is published in Education Week.

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