Demonstrators urge lawmakers to 'save our schools'
Do lawmakers hear the voices of the people?
Yes, sometimes -- and even from nine stories up.
On Sunday, a crowd of more than 100 demonstrators gathered in spring-like weather on the street outside the General Assembly Building, chanting "Save Our Schools!" They cheered whenever passing vehicles honked in sympathy. Inside the building, dozens more camped out in the hallways near the hearing rooms where the money committees unveiled their proposals. There the protesters tapped away at laptops, read newspapers or engaged in intense discussions about the budget-slashing that has gripped the state capital. One man changed a baby's diaper on a folding table.
Down on the street, Denise Elder, 57, a sixth-grade history teacher in the Richmond public schools, said she worried for her students and her job.
"You don't know who they're going to cut, or why," Elder said. But even worse, Elder said she is concerned for her ninth-grade daughter, Stacey, who attends the international baccalaureate program at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond. Elder said her daughter's prestigious program, which accepts students who pass certain tests and maintain a 4.0 average, faces a serious threat of closure if the cuts move forward.
"When you're cutting teachers and schools, you're cutting the next generation," Elder said, adding that she suspects the governor's decision to cut K-12 education so deeply is an effort to gut public schools to create more charter schools.
Holding a sign saying "Save Our Schools," Annie Campbell, 54, a third-grade teacher in Richmond's public schools, said she had hoped McDonnell would reverse his decision to unfreeze a key school formula designed to equalize spending around the state.
Otherwise, her district could lose $200 million, perhaps leading to layoffs and larger class sizes.
"Right now, the poorest children in the state stand to lose what they need most -- an equivalent public education,'' said Campbell, 54, of Richmond.
Campbell said she understood that the gaping budget hole is a reflection of the worst recession since the 1930s, that many other programs had suffered, and that McDonnell's victory reflected a mandate not to raise taxes. But she hoped that McDonnell would somehow find a way to balance the books using creative solutions that minimize the pain.
"I think if you can find a way to not raise taxes without penalizing the poorest in our society, that would be a creative thing to do," Campbell said. "He needs to look out the window right now."
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said the Senate, at least, sympathized with the demands, agreeing to raise fees and trim retirement contributions to future state employees in order to give more money to schools. The Senate finance committee members also said that although they supported unfreezing the school formula -- known as the Local Composite Index -- they also pledged to hold all school districts "harmless," by finding the same amount of funding as before.
Howell said the Senate version of the budget is also more generous to Northern Virginia schools than the House version because it not only gives a larger overall amount, but also because it includes more funding than the House for Northern Virginia teacher salaries that allows urban area schools to be more "competitive" in hiring staff.
But the process has been painful, she said.
"One of the really poignant things was that, as I was up listening in the House Appropriations to the budget, you could hear people down on the street chanting, 'Save our schools,' " Howell said.
-- Fredrick Kunkle
February 22, 2010; 11:53 AM ET
Categories: !General Assembly , 2010 legislative session , Fredrick Kunkle , General Assembly , General Assembly 2010
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