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School District Employees Protest State Budget Cuts

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 25, 2008

Dozens of community members joined Berkeley Unified School District employees and parents to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger’s proposed $4.6 million state education budget cuts Friday. 

They held signs forming a human billboard reading: “No Cuts! Increase State Revenue!” which snaked along the length of the district’s headquarters at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

“People are starting to notice,” said Berkeley Federation of Teacher’s President Cathy Campbell, as drivers honked in support of the protesters. “The word is getting out that these cuts will be devastating for our kids.”  

Campbell said she expected hundreds to turn up at a bigger rally planned for April 9. 

The district sent out 55 pink slips to teachers earlier this month to prepare for the proposed cuts.  

“There’s an effort by the district to bring teachers back by looking at retirements and resignations and their funding options, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Campbell said. 

At least 20 teachers who could be potentially laid off in June showed up to voice their concerns. 

“I still have hope that I won’t lose my job,” said sixth-grade Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher Yvette Felarca, one of those who received a pink slip. “I want to stay on in Berkeley Unified. Our teachers and students deserve better. These cuts are criminal. We need to ensure revenue and a regular form of funding, especially with our state’s diversity. Minorities need our help more than ever in the classroom today.” 

Berkeley Unified stands to lose up to $5 million from the proposed cuts, which could potentially lay off dozens of teachers and counselors and bring an end to after-school programs. 

Districts across California are trying to get the same message across to Sacramento. While some, like Alameda, are getting creative by putting students into trash cans to show the gravity of the situation, others are knocking on the doors of their legislators. 

Felarca and other teachers from her school held letters spelling the word “no” before the word “cuts.” 

“I am here to support the teachers who did get layoff notices,” said Maria Isabel Barrea, a sixth-grade special education teacher who did not receive a potential layoff notice. “It’s important that we all stand together. Our funds are already strained and I think the governor needs to really evaluate how we can fix this situation for the students.” 

The district’s special education teachers did not receive pink slips, Campbell said. 

“They were skipped since it’s an area of shortage,” she said. “There aren’t enough special education teachers in the state or in Berkeley. The board can legally decide to skip them.” 

Counselors, however, were not so lucky. 

“How do you expect students with mental disorders and emotional challenges to sit in the classrooms without additional support?” asked Rosina Keren, one of two counselors at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School who received potential layoff notices. “Mental health is an integral part of a child’s education. Enough said.” 

School Board President John Selawsky joined the rally holding the letter “T” in the word “cuts.” 

“T for taxes,” he shouted. “They are going to have to talk about raising revenue. The state is letting millionaires get away without paying sales taxes for their yachts. It’s criminal. It’s affecting our kids. Laying off people won’t help to solve the budget crisis at the state level.” 

Selawsky said there had been little change in the proposed cuts over the last month. 

“We won’t know much for another month and a half,” he said. “I predict that the governor won’t pass the budget until August or September, which is good. Otherwise the governor would have his way, which is bad, unless he changes his mind, which I very much doubt.” 

Jefferson Elementary School parent Shui Wong came with her son Owen to protest. 

“We made a conscious decision to put our kids in public school instead of private,” she said. “It’s a real shame. Because of the governor’s short-sightedness, more and more people will opt to put their kids in private school.” 

“Teachers are important,” said Owen, who spent the afternoon waving to motorists and blowing on his whistle as they cheered the protesters. “And teachers at Jefferson are wonderful.”  

Jefferson teacher Beth Trevor, one of the teachers to receive a pink slip, came with her son Jasper to flaunt a red and yellow poster which read: “Flunk the budget, not our children.” 

“It’s been a week since I got the letter,” she said, sporting a “Berkeley’s Best Teachers” badge. “It’s still hard thinking about how we are going to make it to the end of the year, but we are carrying on.” 

Trevor, along with a host of other district employees, are asking people to write letters to their legislators—especially Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata—to increase state revenue. 

“We want Sen. Perata to continue fighting for us and not leave Sacramento before this is resolved,” she said. “We want the state to reinstate the vehicle license tax—which the governor cut when he came in—and bring the top tax bracket back to 11 percent. We didn’t cause the state’s budget problems, so why should we suffer?”