Bill Boyarsky: State budget crisis calls for action

If there was ever a time for Jewish parents to fight for Los Angeles public schools, this is it.

Legislators can’t agree on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to have a special election to extend taxes scheduled to expire this year. “If we don’t get these tax extensions, it’s a dire emergency,” said Steve Zimmer, the Los Angeles school board member who represents the Westside and the West San Fernando Valley. Layoff notices have already been sent to more than 7,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers. If the voters don’t approve the tax extensions, those notices will, for the most part, be translated into firings.

This would be a devastating blow to Jewish families who have been engaged for many months in a campaign to persuade parents to send their kids to public schools. They have hosted parental meetings in their homes, arranged for school visits and formed support groups, all in the interest of persuading skeptical mothers and fathers that their children can receive a high-quality education in Los Angeles public schools and that these schools are safe.

Now, with the budget crisis, parents impressed by faculty during school visits might one day learn those teachers have been fired. 

“Reinvesting in public schools, particularly on the Westside and the West Valley, is still a fragile choice, still a leap of faith,” Zimmer told me. “People are positive, but it is fragile. So when you add the [budget] uncertainty, it makes the situation more precarious.”

Some people aren’t sitting back and taking it. 

At the Westside’s Temple Isaiah, a center for the back-to-public school movement, Rabbi Dara Frimmer told me congregants are learning the complex politics of the Sacramento budget mess and what will happen if Gov. Brown’s proposed tax extensions are not approved.

At the same time, they are examining the Los Angeles school district budget. This is a great idea. Get some smart accountants, tough lawyers and sophisticated political activists to take that budget apart. When it is time to cut, we shouldn’t accept the word of the school board or administrators at face value.

Although she is concerned about the cuts, Rabbi Frimmer said, “this only intensifies our commitment to public education — not just Jewish middle-class parents but all parents.”

At Hamilton High School, students, inspired by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia, used Facebook and e-mail to create a protest network after hearing of the layoff notices, which would hit their school hard. Among the many targeted cuts that would affect the school, major district-wide cuts are focusing on music programs, and Hamilton’s renowned Music Academy falls into that category. Students began work on a Friday and by Monday had 600 students at a rally and had persuaded — with about 100 e-mails — Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez to visit the campus. He wrote a terrific, supportive column. Continuing to work through the week, they organized a bigger rally outside the school on South Robertson Boulevard last Friday morning.

This is another great idea. The L. A. school district is traditionally afraid of student activism, and administrators, fearful of getting in trouble, tend to put it down, but, as others have found, it’s hard to put down a social network.

Still, political organizing hasn’t been easy, as this Hamilton dad wrote me:

“Several kids, including our son, were designated to speak to the school board on Tuesday. They were told to be there at 9 a.m. to ‘sign in.’ They were there by 8:20, signed in and were told to return at noon for the 1 p.m. meeting. They did as they were told. Sometime after they got back, they were told that they hadn’t filled out the necessary forms — forms that no one had mentioned to them before. As a result, they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. They missed a day of school, didn’t get to speak, but … they learned a lesson (although I’m not quite sure what it is) about dealing with the district bureaucracy.”

If the kids have the guts for a worthy fight, the adult Jewish community should, too.

Sure, it’s easy to ignore Sacramento. The budget crisis is confusing, ugly and messy. It’s more fun to rub shoulders with the glitterati at a presidential fundraiser or hear some well-known journalist or book author at another Westside political or cultural event for donors. No doubt about it, it’s more interesting to talk about Israel, Egypt or maybe even the Afghanistan war than to immerse yourselves in the tortuous details of the Sacramento legislative mill.

But we all have to turn our attention to Sacramento with e-mails, faxes and phone calls. If these lawmakers, terrified of losing, get enough static from constituents, they’ll listen. Republicans should tell those stubborn GOP legislators to drop their opposition to letting the people vote on taxes. Democrats can tell liberal legislators to ignore large contributions from public employee unions who are against the governor’s plan. They don’t understand, as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote, that Brown “is just the type to turn on everyone if negotiations blow up. He’d probably propose an all-cuts budget that would cripple schools, eliminate many thousands of teacher jobs …”

Skelton knows Brown well. So do I. And it’s clear that time is running out for our public schools. As Jews, who value education more than most, it’s our obligation to take the lead in saving them. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).