An Attempt to Get Answers Regarding The Governor’s Education Budget

by Amy Yamashiro on March 29, 2005

(Ed Note: This piece provides an illuminating glimpse into the Schwarzenegger Administration, and while written by a Berkeley resident is equally relevant to San Francisco. It first appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet)

As a member of the Berkeley Unified School District community, I recently received a letter from Superintendent Michele Lawrence explaining the situation with teacher contract negotiations, facts about BUSD’s financial situation, and the proposed state budget as it relates to education. We were asked to contact the governor’s office to express our feelings about the proposed budget, so I did.

I called the number provided (916.445.2841), chose “hotline topic” (5), waited for a while, then was connected to a real person. Regina was obviously less than thrilled to be speaking with someone criticizing the budget proposal. We spoke for a few minutes as I tried to cover the topics raised in the Superintendent’s letter, and her replies were mostly limited to a couple of stock phrases, regardless of my questions and then responses to her repeated phrases. It basically ran something like this.

“I’m calling . . . to express my displeasure at how the new budget takes money away from districts and to ask that the governor fulfill his promise to restore funds that were borrowed from education last year.”
“There are no cuts in the education budget”.
“But if the money was borrowed from education and never gets repaid, that’s the same as a cut, isn’t it?”
“There are no cuts in the education budget”.
“Why is it then that the governor’s budget moves responsibility for STRS from the state to the district? It’s a removal of money from the state budget, isn’t it?”
“There are no cuts in the education budget. Have you even read the proposal? It actually adds money to education.” She gave me the website.
Still on the phone with her, I typed it in, followed a couple of links, and said (ok, a little triumphantly) “See, right here, it says the responsibility for STRS is being moved from the state to the districts. Why is that?”
She hung up on me.

I called back, waited, then the phone was picked up and immediately hung up without a greeting. Hmmm.

I called back, waited again (lots of time to look over the online budget), and spoke with John, who apologized for Regina, was similarly unable to help me out, but didn’t hang up on me. He repeated the stock phrases, then transferred me to Joe, the “education guy.”

Joe was also quite apologetic, and tried to answer my questions more fully. At my first mention of STRS, he tried to transfer me to the retirement plans person (Katie – 916.445.1456), but I managed to keep him on the line. Among other things, we discussed a few of the stock phrases that had come up.

“Money has been added to education – it’s the governor’s number one priority and is over half the budget.” Joe stated a few times that the education budget had increased and that it was now over 60% of the overall budget . . . so I interrupted him to ask why the graphic on the website’s summary charts put K-12 education spending at 32.3% and higher education spending at 11.5% for a total of 43.8%. He navigated there, then sent me to another page (major program areas; K thru 12 Education) showing that $61.1 billion would be spent on schools. Um, last time I checked, billions of dollars don’t equal percentage points. Then Joe said I’d have to talk directly to the finance department (916.445.9862) to find out why the figures on the website didn’t match the one he had.

“There are no cuts in the education budget.” He explained that no areas had received actual cuts, and that the amount given to districts had increased by $362 per student. He wouldn’t talk about STRS, so I asked about the monies that had been “borrowed” and not returned – $1.5M for 2004-5 and 2005-6 for a total of $3M taken from districts. He tried to explain that the additional revenues being given to school districts ($1.8M for Berkeley in 2005-6) would cover that. So then I quoted from the Superintendent’s letter that “. . . we will lose other revenue [Berkeley] received this year from the state or county, such as lottery funds, mandated reimbursements and interest income; a total loss of $572,000. . . increased medical and required benefits for all employees are estimated to be $468,000. . . STRS . . . will cost $700,000” so the additional revenues will roughly break even with the new expenses. I asked him if he were to receive a $50/week raise which happened to be tied to an additional $100/week in new mandatory taxes, would he consider that a pay raise or a pay cut? He chuckled and said he could see my point, but agreed that it was all just political semantics.

“All of the money is going straight into classrooms.” When I asked about teacher salaries, I was told that all of the new monies being provided by the state budget were earmarked for classrooms – direct student use. I remarked that the teacher is the one most important thing in the classroom for impacting student learning. He chuckled and agreed with me again, then clarified that the monies are for supplies and changed topic.

So, I still have the same concerns and questions I did before talking with Joe, but at least he didn’t hang up on me. He also gave me a number – 916.445.1456 – to bypass the automated system next time.

I understand now why more people don’t call their elected representatives. I felt that although I called to express concerns, my voice is not being heard where it differs from the message the governor’s office is working to promote. But I still encourage others to call, in hope that staffers might begin to realize that for voters to believe the promoted message that “the governor’s number one priority is education,” we need to see actual progress being made, not money being shuffled around to play the political semantics game.

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