Fresno Unified hearing delay irks parents, students (video)

The Fresno BeeMay 28, 2014 

A day of action quickly dimmed to disappointment Wednesday for many hoping to express their concerns about Fresno Unified School District's budget plans.

Under the warm afternoon sun, scores of students calling for more money for classroom materials and alternative discipline practices fought for sidewalk space as hundreds of teachers union members protested stalled contract talks during dueling rallies outside Fresno Unified's headquarters in downtown Fresno.

The sound of whistles and the call of protesters faded as school board trustees met to discuss a budget deal that's ruffled feathers among some community members.

But while several dozen parents, students and teachers showed up to bend Fresno Unified trustees' ears about their concerns, the crowd thinned by the time the board finally held a public forum about the budget at 9 p.m. -- four hours after the meeting started.

"We're very irritated with this," said Luis Santana, executive director of Reading and Beyond, one of the last people in the crowd. "If (the board) wants to have engagement, they need to provide the time."

A scheduled public forum to discuss the spending plan was moved up as the meeting began to run long.

"We did adjust the agenda and moved the items for the budget," said Ruth Quinto, the school district's chief financial officer. "But there is a process that must be followed in accordance with the agenda and the public hearings that are required by (state) Education Code."

Even so, few waited around as the board worked its way through a lengthy scholarship presentation and several other agenda items.

Cyndee Loryang, a mother of four, was one of the few parents left in the meeting when the board gave the public time to speak at the dais. Several in her group left early to get back to their kids. Many students who showed up to speak left to finish homework. Loryang said she stayed to express her frustration with parts of the budget meant to fund programs for at-risk students and English learners.

The budget "was not reflective of the community," she said, adding that "none" of the recommendations her parent group proposed made it into the district's final budget.

The board is expected to approve a $726 million spending plan next week, which includes millions more for career technical education, special education and campus security, plus additional state funding intended for at-risk students. The budget also adds funding for more school counselors and custodians.

Like many districts across the state, Fresno Unified is getting more money under a new state education funding formula that targets English learners and low-income and foster students. Officials have held two dozen community meetings about how to spend the new cash.

Several community organizations like Californians for Justice have lined up with education groups like Reading and Beyond to pressure the board to spend more on programs aimed at reducing student suspensions and expulsions. The board's plan would spend $1.5 million on programs at McLane and Edison high schools, $1 million more than the current year's budget.

That's not nearly enough, Edison High sophomore Ivette Marquez said before the meeting. She wants the board to slow its plan to spend $3.5 million on campus security measures and direct it to restorative justice programs instead.

The 16-year-old knows all too well the possible danger schools face: It hasn't yet been six months since an Edison teacher was shot on campus after hours. But Ivette said she's not convinced security cameras are worth the cash. Programs to help improve students' bad behavior, she said, could have long-lasting effects like higher graduation rates.

Trustees were sensitive to the concerns, but stopped short of recommending more money. Expanding the programs to other high schools should be a priority, said Trustee Janet Ryan. Ensuring staff are well trained to use alternative discipline is also important, Trustee Cal Johnson said.

Others said they're worried their concerns are being dismissed outright. A mother of two elementary students who are English language learners is worried the budget ignores students like her sons.

Irma Reyes, the mother of two sons who attend Vang Pao Elementary, said parents want more transparency about where the money will be spent.

"I'm asking for more programs specifically to help with intervention and reading," said Ramon Perez, who translated for Reyes who speaks Spanish.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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