San Diego protesters challenge budget cuts

By Rick Greenblatt

SAN DIEGO--Teachers and other public school employees, students, parents, disabled rights activists and county workers marched here twice in April to protest California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to balance the state budget on the backs of public schools and government workers.

A proposed 10 percent statewide cutback in education funding has resulted in 918 layoff notices sent to teachers in the San Diego Unified school district (SDUSD), the largest district in San Diego County.

An additional 1,000 layoff notices have been rumored for non-teaching SDUSD employees when the school board meets on April 22, and 1,000 more layoffs notices are anticipated by teachers elsewhere in San Diego County. The actual number of layoffs for both teachers and classified workers has not yet been determined.

On April 15, an estimated 300 protesters assembled in downtown San Diego to say no to the cuts. Organized by a coalition that included several disability rights advocacy groups, the California School Employees Association (CSEA, the union representing classified employees in San Diego schools), ACORN, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 221 and SEIU United Healthcare Workers, the protesters marched to the State of California building, chanting "No more cuts."

What you can do

For more information on the struggle and what you can do to support it, go to the Save San Diego's Teachers Web site.

While many wore black to symbolize mourning for services lost to the cutbacks, marchers in red ACORN, purple SEIU, blue CSEA and green AFSCME t-shirts gave the march a festive appearance.

"I have grandparents on SSI," said 19-year-old ACORN supporter Christopher Wilson. "I come from a lower-income family. This really hits home...I came here to do what I believe in, to stand up and fight. One person really can't do much, but if we are big in numbers, then we will be hurting them."

Speaking from his wheelchair, 36-year-old Reuben, an activist with Access to Independence, said, "I'm here to protect our future and those of people with disabilities, seniors and students. I get MediCal, and MediCal is beginning to cut some of the medication that I need to take to keep going."

Ted Hernandez, a 50-year-old teacher at Hoover High School, explained he was there because "I don't believe that education should be used as a pawn for any sort of budget balancing. Already, a dozen teachers [at Hoover] have been given pick slips, as well as three counselors."

Days later, on April 20, teachers held another protest at the State Office Building in downtown San Diego. Initiated by an ad hoc group of teachers from Hoover High School, word was spread informally by e-mails and through announcements at union meetings. Along with parents and students, an estimated 700 teachers and other protesters marched through downtown to encircle the office building.

Rebecca Vachal, a fifth-grade teacher at Jackson Elementary School, said teachers have been holding events at schools throughout the community. "Really," she said, "I would like the school board to overturn our layoff notices. They're the ones who voted for this...On listening to how other districts are making cuts, it's all on the backs of our kids, and that's not fair."

According the teacher's aide Kim Dominic, school employees are "kind of discouraged and disappointed. For me, I'm not secure with my job. I'm either going to get laid off, bumped, or get my hours cut. I have to try to find a way to make ends meet."

She added that "everyone should show up at these events, not just teachers and people working for the school district--neighbors, friends, anybody you know who wants to support us. Have them come out. The more people we get, the better."

According to Chula Vista sixth grade teacher Amber Gosling, whose district has sent out layoff notices to 274 teachers, "People are here because they have to fight back. They are under pressure, they are losing their jobs, and they know that they have to do something."

Logan, a substitute teacher, said that "with actions like this, I think they'll begin to learn the process in which to look beyond just the small issue, to look to the greater issue, that's really the crisis facing our whole economy and our country, and teaching in general."

At the rally several speakers called for lobbying to end the cuts. Speakers also encouraged teachers, school employees, students and supporters to attend the next protest, a rally at the San Diego Board of Education meeting on April 22, called by unions representing the teachers and the classified school employees.