Fresno State students, faculty rally against cuts

Thousands of students, faculty and staff Thursday staged marches and rallies in Fresno and throughout the country to protest budget cuts that have crippled public education.

Demonstrations on several college campuses turned ugly as protesters threw punches and ice chunks in Wisconsin and blocked gates on two University of California campuses.

But in Fresno and at dozens of other protest sites from high schools to city squares, the so-called "National Day of Action" went off with little incident as students, faculty, staff, administrators and unions united on the same side of the money equation.

Locally, the only ongoing protest late Thursday was a sit-in by a few dozen students at Fresno State's Joyal Administration building. Participant Matt Ford said the sit-in ended just after 10 p.m. when students decided to leave. No one really prepared to stay the night, he said.

In California and other states, the dismal economy and tumbling tax revenue have eroded public funding for K-12 schools, colleges and universities.

According to the California Federation of Teachers, the governor and Legislature have cut public education by $17 billion in two years. Few are optimistic about next year because the state faces a $20 billion shortfall.

Budget-related protests have cropped up on college campuses throughout the academic year. Advocates began planning Thursday's unified protests last fall.

At Fresno State, 300 to 350 students, faculty and staff crowded the campus Peace Garden to decry the cuts that have resulted in fewer classes and faculty members furlough days and soaring student fees.

Student Carlos Garcia, 33, of Fresno said he's working 48 hours a week so he can pursue a master's degree in social work. Even the thought of another fee increase -- on top of this year's 32% -- "makes my stomach churn," he said.

Roughly 200 activists at the rally first took part in a sign-waving march to campus that began at Blackstone and Shaw avenues. Marchers chanted "they say cut back, we say fight back" and other phrases along the route.

English professor Lisa Weston, president of the faculty union, said she used her furlough day for the walk. She said she was tired from the march, but even more tired of begging and fighting with other branches of education for a few crumbs of state money.

The 23-campus California State University system was hit hard this year by a $560 million budget shortfall. Weston and others argued that an investment in public education will pay off for the state.

"Education doesn't need a bailout -- education is the bailout," she said.

Fresno State President John Welty echoed that in a statement, saying he hoped the rally and other events "will contribute to the public's understanding of the need to reinvest in California higher education."

At Fresno High School, leaders of the Fresno Teachers Association and Fresno Unified administration stood in solidarity during a rally before school. Union president Greg Gadams urged voters to write and call state officials, saying "it's time to stand up for schools."

Superintendent Michael Hanson, who sometimes clashes with the union, agreed that "education is under assault." He said Californians have a clear choice: more education or more prisons.

"If we are not doing all that we can to reorient our community around youth, we have completely missed the boat," Hanson said.

In California, protest actions took place at most UC and CSU campuses, some community colleges and other locations.

Several demonstrations turned rowdy and even violent. At rush hour Thursday evening, protesting students shut down the I-880 freeway near Oakland. At UC Santa Cruz, some protesters surrounded a car, breaking windows, and blocked some campus gates. Protesters blocked gates at UC Berkeley.

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