Image credit: New America Media.

Natalie Robinson, 10, won’t be returning to Cordova Lane Elementary School next year because her school was shut down last week.

“It’s sad because my school is closing after 51 years,” said Natalie. “I’m going to miss my teachers; they were all really nice and creative.”

Cordova Lane Elementary, which takes its name from the Sacramento suburb where its located, shut down due to low enrollment, and this is just one of many changes the Folsom Cordova Unified School District has already implemented as a result of $14.7 million slashed from the 2009-2010 budget and $14.1 million more for the upcoming school year’s budget.

“We will increase class sizes and reduce the number of teachers, custodians, librarian assistants, counselors, principals, vice principals, and sports program,” said Steven Nichols, spokesperson for Folsom Cordova Unified School District. “These cuts are very uncomfortable for us because we never thought we’d have to make them.”

Massive cuts in schools may not surprise Californians these days, but that doesn’t mean residents have become complacent. In late May, a broad coalition of families, students, teachers, school districts, administrators, and advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the State of California, asking a Superior Court Judge to declare the state’s system for funding public schools unconstitutional.

The Robles-Wong, et al. v. California lawsuit, which is supported by State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, argues the amount of state funding provided to education isn’t sufficient enough to deliver the programs required for students to meet the state’s educational requirements.

For example, the state requires Riverside Unified School District to adopt new textbooks but only provide a fraction of the dollars needed to buy the books, according to Dr. Rick Miller, superintendent of Riverside Unified School District. Riverside Unified is one of nine school districts listed among the plaintiffs.

“We see this lawsuit as the next step in the grassroots organizing movement for educational justice,” said Paul Tran, communications director for Californians for Justice, one of many organizations who support the lawsuit.

Rodney Robinson, Natalie’s father, has lived in Rancho Cordova since he was 6 years old, with his wife, Marsha, and their two other children, Nyah and Nigel.

A lot has changed in the Folsom Cordova school district since Robinson grew up, not necessarily for the better. He said that’s why the Robinson family got involved with the lawsuit.

“We have out-of-date textbooks and in some classes we watch educational videos from the late 1970s, said Nigel, who will be a freshman at Cordova High School next year. “Students are really disappointed about budget cuts. Our schools aren’t preparing us for the road ahead.”

Nigel is on the basketball team, soccer team, wrestling team, and plays the violin. “Next year, we might not even have most of these programs in school, and even if we do, we’ll probably have to contribute twice as much money towards athletic programs.”

Freshman sports were eliminated at Cordova High School for the upcoming school year.

“A principal, a counselor, maybe a vice principal, it’s not enough for a high school of over 2,000 students,” said Marsha Robinson, who works as an administrative analyst at Sacramento State University. “The system is totally broken. It needs to be fixed.”

“The school districts and teachers have done the best they can, but we can’t expect them to make miracles happen. It’s come to a point that the state needs to be held accountable,” she added.

Over 60 students and their families across the state are listed as plaintiffs, many of varying ethnic backgrounds.

“There are not enough resources and staff members in schools because of budget cuts,” said Maya Robbles-Wang, a 16-year-old student at Alameda High School, who is lead plaintiff. Her Chinese-American father, Michael, is a long-time Alameda resident who has worked in the public sector for 33 years. Her mother, Cookie, is Hispanic and currently works for the City of Alameda. Both have a long history of community activism on issues like affirmative action and civil rights.

“My parents taught me that if I have a voice, I should express it,” said Maya on why she became lead plaintiff.

In Alameda, the district is considering increasing class sizes and consolidating schools if Measure E, a proposed school board parcel tax, doesn’t pass.

Michael Robbles-Wang said his family has many friends living in communities with far less funding for local schools than Alameda, so the family signed on as plaintiffs to take a stance not just for Alameda schools, but for all under-funded California schools.

The Ramirez family of Riverside County signed on as plaintiffs because “any effort to help define how much money should be given to education in California on a regular basis is great,” according to Sandy Ramirez, who serves as leadership director of the twenty-third Riverside Council PTA district.

Ramirez and her husband Rudy have six children, ages 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, and 21, all attending public schools in Riverside, from Emerson Elementary School to UC Riverside.

Payton, 9, and Maddie, 10, are worried about teacher layoffs and said they hope Emerson Elementary School would “rescind pink slips.” Knowledge of such practices like “rescinding pink slips” at such a young age could imply just how commonplace conversations on budget cuts have been since entering elementary school.

“A lot of my favorite teachers from the past, my second grade and first grade teachers, probably won’t be back next year because of layoffs,” said Maddie. “It’s sad to think I won’t see their smiling faces anymore when I’m walking around on school grounds.”

Maddie said she hopes field trips and creative educational programs won’t be cut from classrooms next year. Eastan, her 14-year-old brother who will be a freshman next year at John W. North High School, is worried there won’t be sufficient funds to find a qualified marching band instructor. Their 12-year-old brother Jordan will start middle school in the fall and has heard the classes will be bigger and teachers will be fewer in numbers.

Riverside Unified School District must cut $44 million from the district budget for the upcoming school year, which technically starts July 1.

The result: transportation for middle schools and high schools will be cut. The work year will be reduced. Class sizes in K-3 classrooms will increase. Some 400 pink slips were issued, though some were rescinded last week since teachers agreed to take five furlough days.

“It takes money to spend to meet these mandates the state sets,” Miller said. “There are a variety of programs, transportation, textbook adoption, technology, which we don’t get substantial funding from the state for.”

Four of the six Ramirez children, Megan, Maddie, Easton, and Payton, want to be teachers when they enter the workforce in the future.

Megan, a 21-year-old student at UC Riverside who intends to pursue a master’s degree in education after finishing undergraduate studies, said she’s discouraged about teacher layoffs and pink slips. “Hopefully by the time I get my teaching credentials, more teachers will be getting hired than what’s going on right now,” she added.

Many of those involved with the lawsuit seem optimistic about the proceedings.

“We’ve been researching this school funding lawsuit for probably half a decade,” said Frank Pugh, President of the California School Boards Association. “We reviewed what other states have done in similar lawsuits and put together our strongest case.”

The state must respond to the complaint within 30 days, but this deadline is often extended.

The lawsuit is not likely to immediately reverse any cuts, or result in the rehiring of any teachers. Still, the students and parents bringing the lawsuit argue it is important.

“We know this lawsuit isn’t a quick-fix that will allow funds to magically appear in schools next year,” said Rodney Robinson. “My younger daughter will graduate from high school in 2023, so the hope is that over time, the state will make education more of a priority and put our kids back on an even playing field with the rest of the country.”

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