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Palo Alto Weekly Online Edition

Publication Date: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Parent power
Furious parents mobilize to keep local property taxes
and protect basic-aid schools

by Grace Rauh

School board president Mandy Lowell held her cell phone above a crowd of letter-writing parents at La Dolce Vita cafe on Friday morning.

"Now, who wants to call the governor's office right now?" she asked.

Since Gov. Gray Davis' January proposal to divert local property taxes from basic-aid school districts, Lowell has been busy writing letters, placing calls to Sacramento, and rallying parents in opposition.

"We are going to prevail," Lowell said. "Company CEOs and parents who have lived here for three months are coming out for this (issue)."

Davis 'proposal has triggered a furious parent movement of unprecedented scope and determination.

Letter-writing campaigns have cropped up at coffee shops, beside drop-off lines at local schools and in the stands at Little League baseball games. Parents have persistently called the governor's office and created e-mail news groups. School districts have launched Web sites devoted to the budget crisis. The county PTA Council has passed resolutions denouncing Davis' plan and parents have even traveled to Sacramento to voice their anguish over projected cuts.

Even if Davis ditches his original proposal, mobilized parents have vowed to continue their battle to ensure that basic-aid schools will never face such a threat again.

"We have been told they (the governor's office) have never seen a grass-roots effort like this," Lowell said at a recent letter-writing gathering. "They (the governor's office) have been astounded by the amount of public outcry."

Since January, the governor's office has been inundated with 100,000 letters. Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) said his office has received10,000 letters objecting to the proposal. The state answered more phone calls and received more letters in the past six months on the budget cuts and class-size reduction than on any other subject.

"This is the most galvanized I've seen our community," Palo Alto School board member Cathy Kroymann said.

One indication of the breadth of the parent movement has been the mountain of letters sent to Sacramento since the crisis began.

"I had no idea, no clue, how many people would show up," Camille Townsend, a parent and PTA member whose first letter-writing campaign drew 160 parents. "There was a stunning response that showed I wasn't alone. Parents are justifiably concerned about losing their schools."

Townsend is one of many parents who launched letter-writing campaigns. At last Friday's gathering at La Dolce Vita, she was a focal point for activity.

"Write your comments and sign," Townsend said to parents as she handed them form-letters destined for Sacramento. Parents spread out across tables and worked diligently on their letters.

A paper cup filled with dollar bill donations sat atop her table. Townsend, who organized five letter writing coffees since February, paid for the letters, envelopes and stamps out of her own pocket.

After attending one of Townsend's early coffees, Palo Alto newcomer Hana Pederson set up a letter-writing table at Ohlone Elementary School, where her daughter attends kindergarten. She intercepted parents passing through the drop-off line.

"People like Hana are really phenomenal," said Lauren Janov, who coordinated letter writing campaigns at each Palo Alto elementary school and assisted Pederson with the Ohlone drive. "I'm passionate about it (education cuts), but to see people like Hana who are new to the school district and have busy lives with very young children just standing up and saying, 'What can I do?' -- to have the passion and tenacity to follow it through."

Shortly after Janov's campaign, the governor's office received 14,000 pieces of communication on the basic-aid issue, she said.

"We were 2,000 of that, if our numbers are correct," Janov said.

Days after Davis' January budget announcement, Janov launched an Internet newsgroup to post budget-related news and articles. "Every morning I sit and scour the Internet. And people send me things and then I post it to the group," Janov said.

"We aren't paid professional lobbyists. It (opposition) is coming from the parents on a volunteer basis. It (education budget crisis) has captured the heart of everybody," Janov said.

The potential cuts have politicized parents beyond letter writing campaigns. Townsend spends part of each day contacting political officials and solidifying action plans. Lowell, a parent as well as a school board member, put the governor's phone number on speed dial to expedite her frequent calls to Sacramento.

Additionally, parents have made frequent trips to the Capitol to lobby state legislators and meet with the governor's education secretary.

The pressure seems to be wearing on the governor's camp, Superintendent Mary Frances Callan said.

"We have been told they (the governor's office) have never seen this kind of public outcry - that is unrelenting," she said. "They were asking that it stop. We said, 'We're not stopping till this proposal is over.'"

Davis has shown no sign of dropping the plan, despite the parent pressure, the Senate Subcommittee on Education Financing's unanimous rejection of the proposal in March and State Controller Steve Westly's outspoken opposition.

Simitian believes pulling the proposal is a two-step process.

"Parents in our area have been tremendously helpful in getting the administration's attention," Simitian said. "The second step is to persuade them, and I think part of the way you persuade the governor's office is on the sheer volume of concern."

Erwin Morton, a parent and PTA member, has visited Sacramento twice since Davis' announcement and has been shocked by the cavalier attitude he encountered.

But he refuses to be dissuaded.

"The budget problem is so big that it really overshadows everything else," said Morton, who has drafted two PTA resolutions denouncing the governor's proposal. .

While Lowell waited for her call to go through to the governor's office last Friday, she perhaps expressed the parent's intent best.

"We are going to be like gnats," Lowell said.

Grace Rauh can be e-mailed at grauh@paweekly.com

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Editor's note:
This is the second in a four-part series on how the school budget crisis is affecting various segments of the community.
As the biggest fiscal fiasco to hit education rocks schools across the state, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the surrounding community battle a state property-tax grab and formulate massive reductions to the district's 2003-2004 budget.
At a study session April 29, the district will reveal its plans to reduce the budget by more than $4 million for the 2003-2004 to address anticipated state cuts and a shortfall in revenue.
In the meantime, it is fighting to hold onto more than $23.1 million in property tax funding that Gov. Gray Davis threatens to take away.

To see the first installment, follow this link.

 

 

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