Teachers’ unions rally to stop Prop. 76 from changing state education funding

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After putting in a 10-hour day as a fourth-grade teacher, Dayle Gillick then spent another three hours repeating the same 67-word scripted phone message before checking off the names of registered voters whose voting habits were listed in a half-inch thick booklet.

On the night of Oct. 24, Gillick and seven teachers from Hollow Hills Elementary School in Simi Valley took their turn phone banking at their local teacher union’s office in an effort to shore up voter opposition to initiatives on the Nov. 8 special election ballot Gillick said are harmful to public education.

“Generally speaking, people have been very nice,” said Gillick, a teacher of 35 years. “They will listen when it’s short and sweet. Sometimes it’s a fax or a wrong number or they’ll cut me off before I finish the script.”

As part of a continuous effort that began soon after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began campaigning for a special election slated with initiatives that he states are necessary to reform California’s broken political system, teachers like Gillick have been called upon by their unions to voice their opposition.

For educators throughout the state, particular attention is being paid to Proposition 76, which they say threatens to cut public education funding and grants the governor independent powers to slash the budget in the event of a fiscal emergency.

Ginny Jannotto, a staff representative for the California Teachers Association, said that for the last two months public school teachers from both the Simi and Moorpark Educators Associations have spent three-hour shifts phone banking in an office cluttered with stacks of flyers, picket and lawn signs, bumper stickers and Halloween decorations.

“A lot of jobs are in jeopardy,” Jannotto said. “They are going to layoff (faculty) and classified (receptionists, custodians) employees if they have to slash millions from the budget. Class sizes will go up and salaries and health benefits will go down.”

If Proposition 76 passes, it would allow the $2 billion that Schwarzenegger borrowed from the public education system last year to be repaid over 15 years instead of having him repay the amount in one year, Jannotto said.

In August, the state superintendent of public instruction and the CTA Issues Political Action Committee filed a lawsuit against the governor for his failure to repay the money that was promised to public education once enough revenue was generated, she said.

“The money was there to do it,” Jannotto said, adding that she is unaware of the status of the lawsuit. “All I know is our job is to get the ‘no’ vote out.”

CTA has spent more than $44 million campaigning against Propositions 74, 75 and 76, according to the Secretary of State’s campaign finance website, Cal-Access. CTA is the 335,000-member state affiliate of the National Educators Association.

If passed, Proposition 76 would cap state spending at the previous year’s level, plus three previous years’ average revenue growth, and change the state’s responsibility to fund public schools’ minimum requirements. The proposition would alter the state’s education responsibilities under Proposition 98, which voters passed in 1998 to guarantee that a percentage of the state budget provides a minimum level of funding for public education.

On Oct. 22, a dozen buses waited with their motors idling outside of the lobby of the Hilton Los Angeles Airport Hotel, ready to take statewide CTA representatives precinct walking in various Los Angeles communities.

Norma Heeter, who recently retired after teaching for 39 years in the San Diego area, was among the 500 elected representatives who attended the CTA State Council meeting at the Hilton. Heeter said she continues to work as the San Diego Educators Association’s secretary and a substitute teacher. She has been phone banking and walking precincts since the first week of October.

“The voters said through Proposition 98 that they don’t want any less money for public education,” said Heeter, who was waiting for the No. 11 bus. “The governor is trying to change what the voters said. Proposition 76 would make what is supposed to be the bottom-level of funding into the top-level of funding.”

Some of the first to board the No. 4 bus before it went to Venice were Katie Young and Heidi Chipman.

“It’s the biggest fight we have ever been in,” said Young, a teacher at John Muir Elementary in Modesto. “No one individual has attacked public education the way this governor has.”

Proposition 98 was not a partisan initiative, but rather about making quality education accessible to everyone in the state, said Young, a lifelong Democrat. She said that in all her 28 years of teaching, the situation has never been as urgent as it is now.

“We set aside our normal agenda to do this. We don’t normally do this,” Young said.

Chipman, a lifelong Republican and teacher at Kramer Middle School in Orange, said that students and teachers deserve more support than they have received.

“I just want to do what’s right for education and for California,” Chipman said.

The text of Proposition 76 states that the governor would have absolute power to “reduce appropriations of the Governor’s own choosing, including employee compensation and state contracts.”

Cecile Bendavid, political action chair for the CSUN chapter of the California Faculty Association and computer science professor, said the tendency to cut into public education funding makes the need for unions obvious.

“The money we raise for political action has given us the power to fight bad propositions. With Proposition 75 they want us to lose that power,” Bendavid said, referring to another proposition on the Nov. 8 ballot that would require public employee union members to opt-in for their dues to be used for political causes instead of opt-out.

“Last year the governor tried to take away our pensions,” Bendavid said. “If Prop. 76 passes, we’ll have to work twice as hard to keep our pensions.”

Frank Wells, CTA communications director, said that under Proposition 76, the governor, whose office prepares the budget forecast, would be able to declare a fiscal emergency up to four times a year whenever revenues do not meet expectations.

“I do not trust this governor on issues of school funding,” Wells said. “It would be very easy to rig the system. A theoretical possibility would be for him to over-project revenues.”

Wells said that because public education funding accounts for 40 percent of the state budget, it is always looked at in times of budget constraints. He said California voters made school funding a clear priority when they passed Proposition 98.

“If (Proposition) 76 passes, the first program to go away would be the class-size reduction,” Wells said. “California already has the largest class size in the nation.”

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.