SAN PABLO, Calif. -- Kindergarten teacher Stephanie Figula has been warned. Next year, she will be teaching no less than 28 children – four more than she has in her classroom this year, and eight more than the 20 she was responsible for before that.
Figula, who teaches at Edward M. Downer Elementary in San Pablo, CA, a small city east of San Francisco, will need to draw on each of her 43-years of experience if she’s to be successful in preparing all of her young students to meet state academic benchmarks. And she must do so despite crippling state budget cuts that have put pressure on her school district, West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD), to do away with much needed resources at Downer Elementary and other schools.
“Every time we turn around, our children are having their money taken away from them,” says Figula.
For example, she says, “intervention” classes designed to get English language learners (students whose primary language is not English) up to speed began 5 months late this year, due to a budget shortfall. To an outsider looking in, such a cutback might appear to be tough but necessary in a time of economic recession. But the decision affects students at Downer Elementary more than it would most schools: Roughly 85 percent of Downer students are English language learners. And it wasn’t the only hard decision school administrators were forced to make.
Psychology assessment tests used to measure the needs of special education students, were also delayed. Downer Elementary was also forced this year to schedule four furlough days, which are days the school is closed to save money. Even Figula’s prep time for her kindergarten class was cut to 100 minutes per week, to accommodate extra work like preparing materials for the school’s upper grade classrooms.
Figula, who is already living paycheck to paycheck, says the next thing on the chopping block could be her employee benefits. “Bless their hearts, but my goodness, you can’t do this to your teachers. They are helping to develop a foundation for the nation,” she says.
Hardly a problem unique to WCCUSD, school districts across the country have had to clip and save, wherever and however they can. Since 2008, WCCUSD has chopped $40.5 million from its operating budget in order to weather the storm of state cuts to education. Whether it’s been music classes, sports and arts programs, teacher trainings or employee benefits, nothing has been left off the cutting table. And by all accounts, the pressure on schools is bound to get worse before it gets better.
In January 2012, Governor Jerry Brown warned that an additional $5 billion would be cut from the state education budget, if his proposed tax plan doesn’t make it on the ballot to have a chance of being approved by voters in November. And even if those cuts are averted, many California school districts already face an uphill climb. Bruce Harter, superintendent for WCCUSD, said his district is already dealing with the fact that they are $4.7 million in debt heading into the 2012/13 academic year.
Local Measure Proposed to Stop the Bleeding
Such grim projections are what eventually gave way to the WCCUSD Board of Education authorizing Measure K, a parcel tax renewal and increase, for inclusion on the June 5 primary ballot.
If approved by voters, Measure K would increase the property tax paid by homeowners in West Contra Costa County by 3 cents – up from 7.2 to 10.2 cents -- per square foot of property, resulting in an additional $4 million for education spending per year, through 2017. On average, households in West Contra Costa County would pay a total of $41 per year on property taxes that get redirected to county schools, if Measure K passes.
Harter says the extra $4 million is needed to mitigate state cuts and keep the district afloat. “This is money that the state can’t take away. It goes exclusively into our schools,” says Harter. “It serves no other purpose and can’t be used for anything [else].”
The money from Measure K, he says, could address a variety of needs, such as implementing classroom size reductions, retaining quality teachers, decreasing student-to-counselor ratios, and maintaining sports, arts and music programs.
Harter says that although Measure K requires no less than 66 percent voter-approval, it stands a good chance. It has already received support, he says, from a number of city councils and neighborhood associations. WCCUSD includes the East Bay cities of Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Pinole and Hercules.
Voters in those cities are as socio-economically diverse as any in the Bay Area, and how people vote on Measure K could be determined by how they interpret the measure meeting the needs of their community needs. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, the poverty rates in Richmond (16.4 percent) and San Pablo (18.3 percent) are more than double that of El Cerrito (7.7 percent) and Hercules (5.8 percent). The median household incomes in Richmond ($54,012) and San Pablo ($43,872) compared to El Cerrito ($79,328) and Hercules ($87,869) also demonstrates a wide range of economic class in the county.
Similar tax measures won approval of voters in 2004 and 2008. However, the last time a WCCUSD parcel tax measure appeared on the ballot was in 2010, and it lost by 7 percent of the vote.
Finding Support and Opposition to Measure K
Elizabeth Sanders, a field organizer at For the Children of West County (FCWC) and an alumnus of El Cerrito High School, has been working on the campaign to inform voters about Measure K. FCWC is a political action committee comprised of parents, teachers, students and some school board members. While the group is campaigning on behalf of the school district, they do not use district money.
Sanders says Measure K seeks to be equitable in the way it would apply property taxes. “If you own a larger home, you pay a little bit more. If you own a smaller home, you pay a little less,” says Sanders. She indicates that major parcel owners like Chevron – the company, which operates a refinery in Richmond, is due to pay $2 million of this year’s $9.6 million parcel tax haul -- are especially implicated. “It gets all of our stakeholders in the community to invest in our schools,” she says.
However, gaining support for the measure entails community outreach, and the campaign is pressed for time. Martina Gonzalez, a parent of a student at Downer, says she hasn’t heard of Measure K. As a member of a Spanish-speaking parent group, El Concilio, Gonzalez says FWCW should present to Spanish-speaking parents and explain the importance of the measure. If other parents like her are not informed, says Gonzalez, Measure K may not pass.
Stopping the deluge of budget cutbacks and saving programs like the English “intervention” classes at Downer Elementary are critical to the success of students like her daughter, says Gonzalez.
“I’ve asked teachers to help her read. They passed her from first to second grade, but only now in the third grade is she learning how to read,” says Gonzalez in Spanish.
Manuel Santoyo, 22, also has a niece and nephew enrolled at Downer. While Santoyo dislikes what the raise in taxes would do to his family’s home, he is concerned about the diminishing special education resources his nephew is receiving. “He can’t learn in a huge class setting and he’s (still) too young to join the special-ed classes (that are offered),” he says.
But lack of voter awareness is not the only barrier for Measure K. At Downer, one grandmother who wished to remain anonymous said her hesitance to vote for the measure is rooted in a larger issue the district has not addressed: mismanagement and vision.
For the grandmother, her memory of WCCUSD’s bankruptcy in 1990 (then the Richmond Unified School District) lingers in her mind. After 22 years, the district announced its final payment in the bankruptcy claim is scheduled for this May. In addition, she perceives that schools in the City of Richmond have not received their fair share of district funding. Two generations of her family have attended WCCUSD schools.
“Over 40 years, I’ve been in and out of WCCUSD. Every 3 to 4 years they ask for money. It’s not right. They need a vision,” she says. “I would like to know where the money really goes.” The Measure K campaign being run by FCWC has stated that all tax money from this measure goes to the district’s operating budget, and not to administrator salaries.
As the June 5 primary approaches, Sanders will be hosting phone banks nearly every other night inside an office in Point Richmond. While high school students have been mostly responsible for making the calls, Sanders says the strategy moving forward is to have more parent volunteers speaking to other parents, to explain the critical need for such a measure.
And if the communities are not well informed, and Measure K does not pass?
Figula lists off the ways students and teachers will be affected: The permanent elimination of “intervention” English classes; larger classroom sizes; more furlough days; decreases to special education, and cuts to teacher’s medical insurance.
While she acknowledges the criticisms and distrust people have toward the district, the consequences, says Figula, are too large to allow.
“We have no choice,” she says. “These children should be taken care of.”
Edgardo Cervano-Soto is a recipient of the New America Media youth Education Reporting Fellowship. Cervano-Soto is a regular contributor to NAM and its affiliate, Richmond Pulse. The reporting fellowship is being supported through a grant from the California Education Policy Fund.