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Protesters Win Deal From Gov.

Pair end hunger strike after Schwarzenegger agrees to refinance school district's loan.

June 05, 2004|Jordan Rau and Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — After nearly a month of forsaking everything but liquids, a handful of hunger strikers this week accomplished something veteran lawmakers have yet to figure out how to do: force Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to appease them.

A 25-day fast, much of it conducted in a park adjacent to the Capitol, ended Friday after the governor agreed to refinance a state loan to the West Contra Costa Unified School District -- serving Richmond and several other small cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay -- so that the interest rate would be under 2%, rather than 5.7%.

The loan's initial rate outraged parents and others because the financially troubled school district's debt has forced it to cut athletics, libraries, music and other programs.

The concession was a far cry from the ambitious list of demands the protesters had hoped to achieve.

The list included full funding of Proposition 98, which is supposed to guarantee a minimum level of public school financial support; equitable funding of all schools; and forgiving all of the school district's debt.

Nonetheless, two remaining hunger strikers from an original group of nine protesters were given a hero's welcome at a news conference Friday.

Cesar Cruz, 30, and Israel Haros-Lopez, 27, in wheelchairs because they were weakened by their fast, were joined by Jessica Vasquez, 20, who broke her fast Thursday after organizers became worried about her condition.

Long-term fasting can cause permanent health damage.

"This is such a beautiful step in the right direction," said Cruz, who wept through much of the news conference.

When the "Fast4Education" hunger strike, which had begun outside Oakland City Hall, arrived in Sacramento last month it was viewed as just one more attention-seeking event of the type that regularly occur outside the Capitol.

But the group succeeded in drawing news coverage and the interest of Democratic legislators in the Assembly.

Earlier this week, several legislators, including Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), introduced a resolution to recognize the fast and urged the governor to refinance the balance of the school district's loan, which now costs it $1.7 million a year.

As the Assembly was preparing to pass the resolution Thursday, legislative leaders went to see Schwarzenegger because they had heard he was angry about their actions.

He told them he thought they were trying "to jam him," according to a source who was in the meeting. Schwarzenegger felt the resolution was a direct slap at him, and he wanted to kill it before it came to a vote, the source said.

Schwarzenegger, who had sent aides to meet with the protesters May 20, according to an administration official, agreed to reduce the interest rate on the loan, and the resolution never was taken up by the lawmakers.

Ashley Snee, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said that the governor early last month had included a measure in his budget proposal to better aid all schools needing financial assistance.

"This is an example of the governor bringing all sides of an initiative together to find a solution in the best interests of the students, of all the districts in California," Snee said.

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