Critics have called the springtime Jerry Brown road show — mostly staged in schools in Republican legislative districts and interrupted briefly when he needed a small growth removed from his nose — little more than a tactic aiming to pressure GOP lawmakers into allowing a special election on the tax extensions sought by the Democratic governor.
While that may be correct, the uncensored, unscripted town halls Brown has staged at least forced some politicians to hear directly from constituents about the effects of state budget cuts already made and the consequences of what might follow if there is no extension of about $12 billion in annual income, sales and car license levies that were temporarily increased in 2009.
So it was the other day at William S. Hart High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, where Brown met with about 150 Southern California school, police and fire officials, insisting on hearing from Hart students, teachers, parents and administrators before anyone else could say much.
Maybe because of the venue, the emphasis there was almost exclusively on schools — by far the largest state budget item — and their supporters, students and teachers had plenty to say.
As usual, Brown was accompanied by his budget director Ana Matasantos and state Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic assemblyman from the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco.
“Changing from 25 students per class to 39 (as Hart has done in the last year) makes a huge difference in getting to know students and working on their strengths and weaknesses,” said the award-winning teacher of a chemistry class visited by Brown, Torlakson and local Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (a Hart alum).
Every student in the class raised a hand when Brown asked how many intended to attend college. That’s the norm at Hart, with test scores among the highest in the state.
Added a chemistry student, “Our classrooms seem a lot less personal now than before.”
Those kinds of complaints might not make much of a dent on the consciousness of politicians and taxpayers who would welcome the end of the temporary taxes, which cost the average California family about $28 per month.
So it also may have been useful for some of them to hear from Amy Daniels, head of Hart’s parent council.
“We have fine, experienced teachers taking early retirement because they don’t want to deal with 39 students in a classroom,” she said. “Our schools are sharing assistant principals. We cut out school bus service for athletics and now we’re driving our kids to away games.
“We’re paying extra for extracurricular activities and clubs, which therefore now add up to activities for the affluent. We’ve cut out classroom sections in chemistry and physics. Freshman sports may be eliminated.
“Our fear as parents is palpable. We’re worried we might not be able to provide the quality education our parents gave us.”
The police and fire chiefs in attendance didn’t speak publicly, but in private conversation, several said remarks from them would have echoed the educators’.
One of those who benefited from Hart’s quality education was Smyth, a former football star at the school, who heard all this and more, but still allowed that “I don’t see where the tax increase ultimately solves the problem.”
Well first, Cameron, it’s not a tax increase. Yet. Californians are already paying the levies in question, and most barely notice.
Second, the tax extension — if leaders of his alma mater are to be believed — would at least keep things from getting worse.
And third, he must not have heard some of things the head of his onetime elementary school district had to say.
“Everything we’ve done, laying off 60 teachers and 90 staff and administrators, is based on an estimate of public schools losing another $2 billion next year if there’s no tax extension,” said Marc Winger, superintendent of the Newhall School District.
“But now we’re told it could be another $2.5 billion on top of that. That would make things much, much worse.”
These folks were telling Smyth that if he doesn’t at least vote to let voters decide whether to extend the 2009 tax increase, today’s students and tomorrow’s will not have anywhere near the opportunities he did. Maybe he listened. Maybe not. His vote will tell.
But at least he heard the voices, including Hart Principal Collyn Nielsen, warning that without the extension “it will lead to diminished competitiveness.”
That’s especially true, others noted, in fields like chemistry and physics, where instruction cuts are coming in the very areas where American students trail behind many others.
It may have smarted for Smyth to hear these things from his constituents and former teachers. It should have, since he’s one of the reasons for the bad news he heard. Maybe Brown needs to stage similar sessions in every Republican-held district in California, so every legislator who’s now preventing a public vote can hear the same sorts of things, and just as directly.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org