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Proposed School Cuts Stir Outcry in Affluent Districts

Well-organized parents in Santa Monica, Palos Verdes and other areas are the first to protest.

January 20, 2003|Lee Romney, Martha Groves and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

Even as the brutal math of the state budget crisis has been little more than a distant rumble to many Californians, parents in some wealthy and well-organized school districts have been shaken from their inattention, as teachers, PTAs and their own kids have sent home word that popular school programs are on the chopping block.

Well ahead of the curve -- as usual -- is politically active Santa Monica, where about 1,000 parents and children paraded to the City Council chambers last week to plead for help for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. In other districts throughout the state -- from Laguna Beach to Glendale to Santa Clara -- administrators are turning to parent groups for help.

Phone trees have been activated. E-mails are buzzing. As the state launches the messy process of carving its way out of a mammoth budget hole, the expected school reductions appear to be the first to pierce the collective psyche of voters in wealthy communities often more insulated from budget-cutting pain.

"It was overwhelming," said Santa Monica parent John Petz, describing the mass protest in the council chambers last week. "This was a combination of access to information combined with people in their own homes who were already passionate about this issue."

Gov. Gray Davis' budget proposal contains plenty of horror for everybody: The poor might lose access to artificial limbs funded by Medi-Cal. Road improvements would be radically curtailed. Entire cities could be forced into bankruptcy.

But mobilizing a voting constituency to protest is not easy. What K-12 education offers -- particularly in affluent districts where children won't necessarily suffer the most -- is a well-greased communication network and a hyper-political audience. Petz first got wind of the parent protest four days ahead of time, in a call generated by a Parent Teachers Assn. phone tree. Then he got the e-mail from a listserv at Santa Monica High School, where daughter Sachi is a sophomore. The list cranks out messages daily, filling parents in on "everything from articles about education to notices of upcoming events," Petz said.

The writer and parent activist couldn't persuade Sachi and son, Jack -- a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School -- to set aside their homework and join him. But parents like Richard Bencivengo brought their sign-toting children. Bencivengo, who owns a company that manufactures scenery for the entertainment industry, even cranked out the signs.

Bencivengo and his wife, Lace, moved to Santa Monica for its public schools. Believers in public education, they joined the Parent Teacher Assn. before their first child entered kindergarten. It was through the e-mail list of a fathers' group at Roosevelt Elementary School, where the children are in third and fifth grades, that Bencivengo spread the word. And so it went, jumping to e-mail lists for single parents, African American parents and Middle Eastern parents.

"It's very viral," Bencivengo said. "Every time we want to get together, whether it's for a pancake breakfast or a school fund-raiser, we mobilize our e-mail. We urge them to bring a friend or their kids. That's the way we did it."

The procession of parents and children wound their way past City Hall. Then many marched upstairs to the council chambers, waving hand-painted signs and chanting, "Save our Schools!"

Although most of the state's nascent parent activism is aimed at begging legislators for a reprieve, Santa Monicans are turning to local government for help, too. The goal of last week's protest was to persuade the city to double its current $3.5 million in funding for the district, which faces cuts totaling more than $14 million this year and next in its $65-million budget. On the line are arts, music and sports programs -- and more.

Facing their own hefty budget shortfalls, council members wouldn't promise a thing. But city officials were sympathetic -- and astounded by the showing.

"I've never seen anything happen that exact way before," said Judy Rambeau, assistant to the city manager. "The mayor, [Richard Bloom] who has been involved with the city for 20 years, said it's the biggest demonstration he can remember."

A parent committee is also attempting to structure a parcel tax measure for the June ballot that would help offset the cuts. School district officials are pushing similar proposals in Palos Verdes and Manhattan Beach.

Under the governor's plan, K-12 education and community colleges would receive $5 billion less over the next 18 months than they would under current funding formulas. The cuts would probably lead to layoffs, larger class sizes, less maintenance and fewer days of teacher training, according to school officials around the state.

Because of complicated funding mechanisms, not all districts would feel the pain equally. But, in a worst-case scenario, none would be spared, and some would be forced to cut general fund budgets by as much as 50%.

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