Are you ready to fight? | March 7, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - March 7, 2008

Are you ready to fight?

PTA carries battle for school funds to Sacramento after unprecedented budget cuts

by Natalie O'Neill

Just after sunrise on a crisp bright Wednesday morning, a group of women in a Danville parking lot boarded a Sacramento-bound chartered bus.

Mothers and teachers clutched their to-go coffee in one hand and a folder full of papers in the other, making small talk about morning news headlines and the most recent high school basketball game.

The women, along with a few men, were off to the state capital for PTA Advocacy Day. By the time they pulled away from the capital eight hours later, there was no more small talk. Conversation had turned to legislation and statistics - to problems and solutions - regarding the budget blows California public schools are facing.

The Feb. 27 Advocacy Day was different this year. There was more at stake - and more to fight for.

In January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his plan to cut $14.5 billion in programs without increasing taxes in order to cope with a statewide budget crisis that had been brewing to the boiling point since at least August.

Of the $14.5 billion, a proposed $4.3 billion will come from cuts in public education for the 2008-2009 school year.

For students in the San Ramon Valley that means $7 million to $8 million in losses.

"This whole budget thing - it's like a lightning rod," said Patty Hoyt, who organized the advocacy day. "Yes, there has to be cuts, but there also has to be an increase in revenues."

For the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, cuts will be in three major places. The most recent school district reports show $3 million to $3.5 million will be chopped from unrestricted money from the state. That adds up to about $130 less per pupil per year in Danville and Alamo.

The second place that cuts will occur are in mandated programs like classroom size reduction and special education. One million to $1.5 million in cuts will be necessary. These programs aren't perks, district staff says, they're necessary.

And last, the governor also proposed no cost of living increase, which translates to the district having no way of funding increases in health benefits to staff, insurance and utilities - another projected $3 million lost.

The school board has not yet determined what programs will be cut or reduced, but they are expected to make a decision in coming weeks. In May, the governor will release an updated version of statewide program cuts.

When the district has suffered financially in the past, staff's goal has been "to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," said school district spokesman Terry Koehne.

But this year signs are pointing toward the classroom.

"We're knocking on the classroom door. It's very sad," he said.

So what can we do?

Over 300 people attended the Advocacy Day this year - significantly more than in 2007 - to put the heat on legislators.

The big push was to not suspend Proposition 98, which sets a minimum dollar-per-student amount for California public schools, calculated based on a percentage of the state's per capita income.

PTA members also voiced that they want school parcel taxes to pass at a simple majority vote, at over 50 percent. A two-thirds vote is now required, making it harder for school districts to fund themselves locally, as opposed to relying on the state.

Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations and Advocacy, spoke first to the audience of about 300. He summed things up.

"This year we're angry," he said.

Assemblyman Guy Houston (R., San Ramon) and State Sen. Tom Torlakson (D., Antioch) spoke afterward, along with other lobbyists. They answered questions and got feedback from San Ramon Valley PTA.

After Torlakson spoke, Hoyt handed him a 3-inch stack of letters in support of keeping Proposition 98. Letter writing campaigns do make a difference, legislators said. Politicians and their staff see every letter that is addressed to them. The letters change minds, Torlakson said.

Audience members tried to pin Torlakson down to a commitment in support of the proposition.

The senator answered that he would do everything in his power not to suspend it, but made no formal commitment.

Where Californians stand

According to the National Center for Educational Studies, California ranks 25th in the country in per-pupil funding, below Texas and Florida. In a state that is doing better economically than many of the top-funded states, this is unacceptable, San Ramon Valley PTA members say.

Six out of 10 Californians don't want to see school budgets cut. And that means the governor's cuts do not align with what most of his constituents want, Gordon pointed out.

"Let's pass a budget that reflects the priorities of Californians," he said. The audience responded with murmurs of agreement.

Christopher Cross of Danville, chairman for an education policy consulting firm, moderated the speeches. Here in California, public education is in dire need - and that seems to be the case every year.

"The question is: How do you put aside the battles of adults in the interest of children?" he said.

The reason for a mediocre public school system in a state that by and large values education, experts say, is due to a "complex and irrational finance system," that dates back to the 1970s. Even some experts say they don't fully understand how the system works. The bottom line is it needs to be changed, education advocates say.

In Danville and Alamo, where property taxes are well above average statewide, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District is the fourth least funded unified school district in the state.

"It just seems so unfair," said PTA member Jenny Hong, who explained that part of the reason she moved to the area was because she expected great schools.

What happens next?

It's hard to keep schools great when even the basics are being slashed, school board trustees say.

Trustees stressed at a mid-February meeting that they must choose what to cut carefully, since effects will be lasting. The board considered figures from $3 million to $5 million in a discussion about the first round of cuts.

"Whatever we cut we'll never get back," Trustee Bill Clarkson said.

Initially, the district expected to issue pink slips to teachers, based on seniority, by March 15.

But at the Tuesday, March 4, school board meeting, district staff explained there's a way around laying off teachers. Layoffs won't be necessary due to the amount of retirement notices given for the 2008-2009 school year, said Assistant Superintendent Roberta Silverstein. Instead, a hiring freeze will be put in place.

"We've had teachers that went to other districts or left education entirely because they were deflated by the process," Koehne said of past years. The enthusiasm that new teachers bring to the schools is at stake.

While no changes in politics are ever made overnight, PTA members said they felt they had made significant "baby steps" at the end of the day.

"They genuinely care what we have to say," said PTA Council President Denise Jennison. "PTA votes. Our power is in our numbers."

Many of the women reflected that they found something Torlakson said early in the day inspiring.

"We're on a traveling road show to bring this crisis in detail to the California voters," he had told the audience. "So, are you ready to fight?"

The room responded with a loud "Yes!"

As the day ended and the bus made its way back to Danville, past the flat farmland and rolling hills, women on the bus were in good spirits.

"Politicians tend to talk," Hoyt said with a smile. "This year we wanted to be heard."


Like this comment
Posted by Hal Bailey
a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2008 at 7:10 am

Dear neighbors,

Applause for Natalie O'Neill for a story presented in-depth and clarity. With personal commentary and analysis of the issues, this is why we read The Danville Weekly.

Thank you, Natalie,


Like this comment
Posted by C Lien
a resident of another community
on Mar 24, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Budget cuts are an unfortunate reality unless people want continually escalating taxes. Businesses don't so jobs will continue to leave California. The place to cut is in administration, not teachers' salaries or especially in classrooms. Education must do as business has done for the past 20 years, reduce middle management & unnecessary oversight of programs. All programs must be reviewed as well - the necessary items will withstand the scrutiny, the less useful may not withstand but all must be scrutinized in these times!