Saturday, March 12, 2005
More than 500 parents, teachers and students rallied in Ventura on Thursday to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger`s proposed budget, accusing him of breaking a promise to keep his hands off education dollars.
Led by state schools chief Jack O`Connell, speakers at the campaign-style rally said California voters have made it clear that education is a funding priority and that Schwarzenegger should honour that sentiment.
“We need a governor who will listen to the will of the voters and not try to run them over with a Hummer,” O`Connell said to enthusiastic cheers.
Ventura parents upset with the 2005-06 state budget unveiled by Schwarzenegger in January organized the rally. Though it calls for a $2.9-billion increase in school spending, it withholds an additional $2.3 billion that school districts are entitled to under Proposition 98.
That initiative, approved by voters in 1988, provides a guaranteed funding level for the state`s public schools. Last year, during a state budget crisis, education leaders agreed to forgo $2 billion on Schwarzenegger`s promise that funding would not again be withheld.
O`Connell and other Democratic leaders say the January budget proposal breaks that promise. A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor did the best he could for schools while facing a nearly $9-billion state budget gap.
“Education spending has the largest year-over-year spending increase in this budget,” said H.D. Palmer, the governor`s spokesman. “It more than covers projected growth in student enrolment, inflation and funding for new initiatives.”
Accommodating additional education funding would have meant “deep and drastic reductions” in health and social service programs, Palmer said.
Aside from immediate budget worries, education leaders say they are fighting to return long-term stability to education funding in California.
Schwarzenegger has suggested that education should not be exempt from across-the-board spending cuts when state revenues fall short. But education groups say voters have indicated that education should be spared from reductions because it is vital to the state`s economic health.
Even with Proposition 98`s funding formula, California ranks among the bottom 10% of states in per-pupil spending, said Charles Weis, Ventura County schools superintendent.
“We`ve seen 30 years of erosion in funding for public schools,” Weis said. “We have now the largest class sizes, the fewest librarians and the fewest administrators. It`s time we changed course.”
The Ventura Education Partnership and Save Our Schools, two grass-roots advocacy groups headed by parents, sponsored Thursday’s gathering.
Over the last four years, schools have seen $9.8 billion in cuts, translating to increases in class size, teacher layoffs, shorter library hours and fewer counsellors, nurses, custodians and groundskeepers.
PTAs have tried to fill the gap by holding fundraisers, said Marie Lakin, a spokeswoman for the Ventura Education Partnership. But there are only so many buckets of cookie dough you can sell, Lakin said.
“This rally may not help,” she said. “But at least we will know we tried.”
Parents and educators from across the county attended the rally, held in a courtyard at the Ventura County Government Center. While waiting for O`Connell to arrive, they sang songs and broke into chants.
Many held hand-lettered signs with messages directed at the state`s actor-turned-governor.
“We Must Stop the Kindergarten Cop,” read one. “Liar, Liar, Promise on Fire,” went another, and “No Arnold, You Won`t Be Back.”
Under gray skies, El Rio schoolteachers played songs on an acoustic guitar in front of a sign that read, “Will Play for School Supplies.”
Pushing a double stroller with her two children tucked inside, Camarillo teacher Cyndee Goolsbee said she attended the event not only to protest the lack of funding but to urge the public not to sign any petitions that would hurt allocations to schools.
“If they keep taking money away, what are my kids going to have? Nothing,” said the fourth-grade teacher.
Timothy Baird, superintendent of the Ojai Unified School District, said the event was bittersweet for him.
Though happy to see grass-roots opposition emerging, over the past two days he had handed out layoff notices to 28 teachers in his district.
In coming months, he expects to oversee the dismantling of elementary music programs that have been in place for years as well as making additional reductions to support staff.
District leaders had hoped to stave off a $1.6-million cut to their $24-million budget by passing a parcel tax. But Ojai Valley voters soundly rejected that option at an election earlier in the week, leaving educators with little choice but to proceed with cuts, he said.