Join us in resisting the cuts

February 17, 2010

Andy Libson, a science teacher at Mission High School, and member of United Educators of San Francisco and the Educators for a Democratic Union reform caucus, has some questions for Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

Dear Superintendent Carlos Garcia,

I WAS one of the 100 or so teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, child-development teachers or union representatives who attended your presentations at our United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) assembly meeting last month.

I heard your presentation where you reported that San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) was going to have to figure out how to cut $113 million from its budget over two years from a general fund that is just over $400 million per year. Of course, I was shocked to learn this, and for a while, it was hard to think of what to say. I think the words "Are you kidding me?" ran through my head, but beyond that, I wasn't sure.

One thing I do remember was how you spoke so eloquently about how you feel that the cuts that you intend to make were wrong. You spoke of how what you were being asked to do was wrong. How if any of us sitting in the audience actually "agreed" with these cuts, that we weren't really qualified to call ourselves teachers. You repeated time and time again how much it pained you to make this report. How what you were being asked to do was destructive to public education and to the values we all share.

A UESF member rallies for funding for schools, not war
A UESF member rallies for funding for schools, not war (Steve Rhodes)

Finally, you asked us to "join your nightmare." You asked us to figure out some creative ways to cut an additional $16 million that couldn't be accounted for after cutting summer school, peer resources, art, PE, health resources, our wages and our school year, raising our class sizes, and topping it off by cutting some bus lines for our students.

You'll have to excuse me (and others in attendance) if we lacked the creativity to come up with additional ways to cut education so that we could make up that last $16 million. I was a little preoccupied watching the school system I have worked in for nine years be destroyed.

I do remember thinking about the $5 billion a month that is spent to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, and thinking, I wonder if this guy is talking to the right crowd. Does he have friends in Washington, D.C., who could put their occupations on hold for four hours so we can fund schools here in San Francisco? Maybe not.

ANYWAY, I wasn't the only one moved by your sincere anguish at having to tell us this news, and the bitterness you had toward making these cuts. Some of us even thanked you for coming here and being willing to tell us the bad news. I didn't feel thankful, but I was also moved by your presentation to think that you were with us. It seems that you felt our pain and anger over being asked to do something that was so wrong, so cruel and so immoral.

Since that meeting, we and other educators have started to act. We're joining students (college and pre-K through 12) and educators from across the city and state in a united day of action to tell Sacramento and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that we will not stand by and let our schools, jobs and students futures be dismantled. We're going to fight back.

At the assembly meeting, you echoed this. You acknowledged that this was a problem that originates in Sacramento and could be solved by Sacramento raising the revenues necessary to fund educations. You didn't say, "Tax the rich," but in my mind, it was implied.

You and I both know that California has more than enough money to fund its schools adequately, and you were just as dismayed as anyone to report that the eighth-largest economy in the world is to fall to the bottom of the 50 states (dead last) in per-pupil spending if these cuts are implemented.

Since that time, I have had time to think of those words you spoke, "Join my nightmare" in making cuts. I want to ask you to re-think those words (but not the sentiment of solidarity implied by them). I want to ask you to "Join our fightback against the nightmare" in fighting back against Sacramento. Join us in mounting a vigorous defense of our school system and a determined fightback against the backwards priorities of Sacramento.

Join us on March 4. Call for an early release of all schools so that we can all participate in that day's actions. Urge all schools and school principals to mobilize their staff, students and parents on that day to send one united message to Sacramento that we will not stand by and watch them destroy the schools we work in and learn in.

That is the least you could do to help us in our united fight to save our schools.

But you and I know that March 4th is only a first step. This will be a protracted battle that will require teachers, students and parents to stand united against the politicians from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., who are looking to dismantle public education with charter schools, merit pay and union busting.

I mean, Arne Duncan virtually admitted this when he called Hurricane Katrina the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans Public School system. What do you say to a person like that? Barack Obama, Arne Duncan and Gov. Schwarzenegger appear united in wanting to summon a manmade hurricane to sweep away public education as we know it.

So I want to ask you to "join us" one last time this year. I have one last request.

I urge you to join us in resistance to Sacramento by refusing to submit a "balanced budget" this year (or over the two-year period your budget covers). I say: send Sacramento a budget soaked in $113 million of red ink. Join us, by telling Sacramento that you refuse to balance a budget on the backs of our educators and students (and even administrators). Urge the board of education to join you in this resistance. Urge all teachers, students and parents to support you in this bid to stand up and resist.

Now, this may seem like a strange request, and if I thought you were like our last superintendent, Arlene Ackerman (who is joyously swinging the budget ax in Philadelphia), I wouldn't even waste the ink.

But word is that you're different--that you have an activist past both within education, within the labor movement, and for social justice causes for much of your life. You're supposed to be different, and many of our teachers know it. That's why they trust you when you come and tell us how bad you feel to have to do this.

I'LL QUOTE from your interview with the SF Educator a few years back:

People ought to understand that I am a teacher who happens to be a superintendent. I take a lot of pride in being a teacher, and consider myself a pretty good defender of teachers. I started out as a social studies high school teacher. I never set out to be an administrator.

Now, I know what you are thinking: "I have to submit a balanced budget. That state will take over our school district. Our school board will be dismantled and taken over." Words like "receivership" and "trusteeship" start to cross your mind. You have a legal obligation to submit a balanced budget.

But I'm asking you to remember your activist past and the lessons that I'm sure you yourself taught as a history teacher. That all of U.S. history is filled with examples of change coming from people deciding not to do what is legal when that means doing what is immoral. This is the kind of moment that faces all activists--the moment when we have to ask ourselves, "Which side am I on?"

That sentiment is what caused our soldiers to refuse to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and inspired educators (and most likely yourself) to refuse to implement racist, anti-immigrant laws like Proposition 187. That sentiment is what's pushing students and educators across the state to refuse to work, to teach, to sit in our seats quietly on March 4. We will be marching instead.

Join us, Superintendent Garcia. Join us in refusing to submit a budget that spells the beginning of the end of public education. You know this isn't going away after two years. Join us now in fighting back. If Gov. Schwarzenegger comes for you, comes for our board of education, I can guarantee that educators, students and parents will rise up to help defend you, and defend the school board that we elected.

Will we win? Will we stop Schwarzenegger's wrecking ball? I don't know. But I can promise you this: such a stand taken by you will make history. It will raise the spirits of our community to struggle against Sacramento and their priorities in a way that could be decisive for San Francisco, and may even inspire other cities to take a similar stand.

Superintendent Garcia, you were a history teacher--you know how this works. Someone has to take a stand somewhere. That is the story of every social movement both you and I have ever read about or in which we've participated. It has to start somewhere. Why not here? Why not San Francisco?

Gov. Schwarzenegger is inviting you to join him in making cuts. I ask you to reject this request. I urge you to join us in making history. Join us in fighting back.

Andy Libson
Mission High School

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