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State's Powerful Teachers Union Urges Lawmakers to Pass Tax Extensions

Weeklong "emergency" campaign includes sit-in at state capitol

Updated 4:22 p.m., 5/9/11.

The California Teachers Association began a weeklong "emergency" campaign Monday to help Governor Brown extend sales taxes, personal income taxes, and vehicle license fees.

The governor has said the tax extensions are needed to make up for a $15.4 billion budget shortfall without slashing already cash-strapped programs. The state's powerful teachers union is using its campaign to highlight the impact those cuts could have on education.

Brown has only a few weeks to convince the state legislature to put the measures on the ballot. If legislators approve a special election, the tax extensions will only require a simple majority to pass.

The California Teachers’ Association is pushing lawmakers to bypass the voters and pass the tax extensions themselves. 

If those efforts fail, however, the state's local school districts will have to go ahead and base their final budget decisions on the state's revised budget plan, set to be released May 16.

“It is a critical time right now, said Ellie Rossiter, executive director of Parents for Public Schools, a parent-led advocacy group dedicated to improving San Francisco public schools. “If they don’t extend these taxes, it becomes a much bigger mountain to climb. This is our last chance to extend the taxes.”

Without the tax extensions, the state’s more than 1,000 school districts may face another $4.5 billion in cuts from the state, according to estimates from the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst Office. School districts throughout the Bay Area say they have been forced to send 3,100 pink slips to teachers, librarians, counselors and classroom aides. Administrators are concerned class sizes will grow.

These impending cuts led the teachers' union to launch their weeklong “State of Emergency” campaign with rallies around Northern California and a sit-in at the state capitol.

Despite the throngs of teachers that descended on Sacramento on Monday, the protest took on a convivial feel and was largely peaceful, said Sean Kennedy, a California Highway Patrol spokesman. A brief sit-in by four or five students in the Capitol Rotunda quickly dispersed at the request of police officers. No arrests were reported, Kennedy said.

"I just don't see Wisconsin happening here," Kennedy said. 

Teachers and some students from districts from Santa Rosa to Salinas began a letter-writing campaign, sending postcards to legislators to urge them to support the tax measures. And teachers from the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District, which may layoff 75 teachers next year, placed empty chairs in front of schools Monday morning.

In San Francisco, more than 100 teachers marched past City Hall, chanting “close loopholes, not schools,” and “textbooks yes, tax breaks no,” drawing the attention from morning commuters who responded with the occasional honk.

“We are facing larger class sizes, severe cuts to arts and music programs and world languages,” said Susan Solomon, a former kindergarten teacher who is the secretary for United Educators of San Francisco, which represents 6,000 teachers and other district employees. “When we promise California’s children that they will have equal access to public education, we are not fulfilling the promise if we take resources away.”

The San Francisco Unified School District has sent out pink slips to 400 teachers, administrators and other staff. Officials have said they hope to rescind some, if not most, of those layoffs.

The California Teachers Association has put aside at least $1 million to cover expenses such as lodging, transportation and the cost of substitute teachers while teachers rally in Sacramento this week, according to some educators.

“This is a struggle for the life of public education,” said Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco. “It took a month to pull together this many people, it happens to coincide with the layoff notices and the May revise of the budget.”

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