Some held rallies in the morning. Others waited until the afternoon. But the message was still the same: S.O.S. – Save Our Schools.
Teachers, parents, students, school board members and administrators and staff throughout the state united in the “save our schools” chant during the Stand Up For Schools demonstration last Thursday. Although national coverage of the event focused on the rallies on college campuses, East County students of all grade levels, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, joined in the action, dressing in pink, waving posters and doing whatever they could to let people know that public education in California is in crisis.
In the past two years, California education has taken a hit, losing $17 million in funding. Now, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed another $2.5 billion in cuts, and public education in K-12 will be hit the hardest. Funding per student is expected to drop from the 2007-08 school year mark of $8,364 per pupil to $7,417 for the 2010-11 school year – an 11.3-percent reduction.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Oakley Union School District Superintendent Rick Rogers. “Those bozos in Sacramento have really messed things up, and they need to find a better solution to deal with the statewide budget issues. Education should be priority number one, and they need to look somewhere else to find the money because this burden shouldn’t be on the backs of our children.”
Rogers joined Oakley’s Stand Up For Schools demonstration last Thursday, standing alongside teachers and staff who have been pink-slipped. More than 500 people gathered at the corner of Mercedes Lane and Laurel Road near Laurel Elementary School to draw attention to the budget crisis.
“Oakley is an amazing place,” Rogers said. “You hear a lot of stories about the budget cuts and pink slips causing divisiveness between teachers and administrators, but not in the Oakley School District. We all understand that we’re in this together and we support each other. Administrations are supporting the teachers and teachers are supporting the administrators. We all recognize that this is a state problem and we need to work together to bring about some kind of change.”
Things aren’t as amicable at the Brentwood Union School District (BUSD), where some teachers are frustrated by the way district officials are handling the cuts.
One elementary school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she won’t be getting a pink slip, but she’s still “disgusted” with the situation. “I am not proud of this district right now. Instead of leading the charge, they chose to sit back and remain quiet.”
The BUSD is expected to make $1.9 million in cuts for the upcoming school year, eliminating programs and laying off teachers, but the school board recently approved the pay raise for three of the district’s highest paid-employees, including Superintendent Merrill Grant. Despite the frustration of the district’s teachers and parents, they set aside their anger to join in the March 4 event.
One teacher at Garin Elementary, who’s also disappointed by the way the BUSD is handling cuts and asked to remain anonymous, described the demonstration as sad. “We understand that there is a budget crisis, but wish people did not have to lose their jobs. We (the district) are losing 42 temp teachers and approximately 20 permanent teachers. … Of course we understand cuts have to be made, but the way cuts are made can be quite different,” referring to the more open approach taken by Antioch Unified School District Superintendent Donald Gill.
Gill posted a podcast on the district’s Web site explaining the budget crisis and what changes will be occurring throughout the district. “The dire situation we are facing this year is greater than any budget crisis of past years. I have to emphasize that this is a direct result of the reduced funding from the state and not from district mismanagement or misappropriation of funds. … If we fail to act now (making districtwide cuts), the consequences for our district will be severe. We will lose control of our district, which means a state administrator will assume full control over all aspects of budgetary decisions with little or no concern for our local needs.”
As if all the televised press coverage from last week’s event didn’t get the attention of state officials, school districts around the state are encouraging parents and community members to join teachers in the fight for education by taking part in a letter-writing campaign. Most school districts are providing pre-written letters available for download on their Web sites.
During the community awareness event at Discovery Bay Elementary School, members of the Parent Teacher Association handed out packets containing letters addressed to Schwarzenegger, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan and State Senator Mark DeSaulnier.
PTA President Tina Duncan said volunteers handed out more than 250 packets of letters outside Discovery Bay Elementary, and other schools in the Byron Union School District were doing the same thing.
Duncan said teachers joined parents during the demonstration before and after school hours, but the parents, dressed in pink, remained outside while classes were in session to talk with passersby and raise awareness about the budget situation.
“Most everyone was very supportive, taking flyers, honking their horns in support,” Duncan said. “We didn’t get any negative response to our activity. Many were surprised that so many people’s jobs were affected. And that was the point: to make everyone aware of how sobering this situation is for our schools.”
Aubre Savage, a first-grade teacher in the BUSD, said she hopes the various events held around the state will alert the community to the severity of the budget cuts.
“As teachers, we need to stand up for our profession, our schools and our colleagues,” Savage said. “This (the demonstration) is a way I could show my community that I care about our schools and what is happening. I think that some of the people in the community are unaware of the way the budget is going to affect our schools. Being out there was a way for parents to realize that we do care about our students and our schools.”
Over at Krey Elementary in Brentwood, nearly 100 teachers, parents and students stood outside the front of the school during the morning drop-off period. In front of the demonstrators were empty chairs with signs that read “One credentialed teacher pink slipped – an entire community affected” and “One K-3 music teacher gone – 500 students affected.” Since other budget cuts remain unknown, some signs were inscribed with a large question mark. Districts have until March 15 to hand out the first round of pink slips.
Krey Principal Brian Jones and Krey second-grade teacher Leslie Shirley wrote in an e-mail to the Press that they hope the events of Stand Up For Schools illustrated how children and local public schools will be impacted by the cuts. “We hope that state officials give more consideration to the impact that their decisions have on our school communities,” they wrote. “There are children and parents that are being impacted by this decision as well as educators. We want them to carefully consider the decisions that they are making and the impact for the future on the education of our children.”
Even if some residents don’t have children enrolled in local schools, Savage said everyone needs to take the budget cuts seriously.
“It is so important for all of us to remember, as cliché as it may sound,” Savage said, “these children are our future, and by cutting their funding for education, we doing a disservice to all of us.”
To view video highlights from Stand Up For School events, click here