California students fight the fees

Jerald Reodica and Alex Fu report on a battle brewing at California State University campuses.

SAN FRANCISCO--With California facing a $16 billion budget deficit, lawmakers have decided ordinary people are going to have to pay--with cuts in social services and education. But students are organizing to push back against the attacks on their schools.

In mid-February, the state legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved some $2 billion in service reductions, largely in school programs and health care for the poor. Cuts of $4.8 billion to education, with over $1 billion cut from higher education, are also being proposed.

Students at California State Universities (CSUs) face another 10 percent fee increase, bringing the total cost to $3,048 per year. Meanwhile, the CSU Board of Trustees treated their 28 top executives to a shocking increase of 19 percent in pay and perks. The perks include a $1,000-a-month car allowance, and either a free home or $60,000-a-year housing allowance.

Lillian Taiz, a professor of history at CSU Los Angeles and president of the California Faculty Association (CFA) said the system "now has the dubious honor of having a chancellor who earns more than the president of the United States--$421,500."

At SFSU, students formed the Fight the Fees coalition to challenge budget cuts in the CSUs. Brian Gallagher, a Fight the Fees organizer and member of the General Union of Palestinian Students, pointed out, "As our rates are going up, administrative salaries and executive packages are running rampant."

In 2006, SFSU President Robert Corrigan's salary was more than $260,000, with SFSU's dean of students coming close behind at $208,000 a year. "It's almost like it's a personal fiefdom around here," Gallagher noted.

Building off the momentum of last year's walkout, students at SFSU have begun to fight back. Fight the Fees coalition meetings have grown every week, from around 40 at the start of the semester to 70 now. A teach-in on March 4 drew almost 100 students who discussed the proposed budget cuts, their impact on education, the connection with spending on the war, and the history of the past student struggles, including a 1968 student strike.

The next day, over 80 students demonstrated and marched into the administration building. According to a Fight the Fees organizer, there are plans to attend a meeting with a member of the Board of Trustees and SFSU's president. The Fight the Fees coalition wants Corrigan to back up his claims of sympathy for the students by paying for their bus tickets to Sacramento to demand an end to the cuts.

Invoking the memory of the student strike in 1968, freshman Derek Webster argued, "If we could do what students at SF State did 40 years ago and shut down the school, they're going to have to pay attention to what we want."

SFSU students are clear that they face a crisis of priorities, not a "budget crisis." If California were to tax the 104 major corporations that call California home by just 2 percent more, it would solve the entire budget crisis. Plus, the Legislative Analyst's Office, Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization estimate that the state fails to collect an estimated $8.5 billion that it is owed from businesses in the state.

Essentially, the money is there, but it stays in the hands of rich. As Erin Walter put it, "Money is not being directed correctly, and it needs to be redirected."