Click photo to enlarge
Students chant "save our schools - budget cuts are cruel" as they demonstrate before a school board meeting at Chipman Middle School in Alameda on Tuesday.
ALAMEDA -- Chanting and holding signs, hundreds of students walked out of class Wednesday to show their anger at the school board's decision to gut funding for high school sports as a way to offset a $4.5 million budget shortfall.

''It's going to affect our entire school, not just the students who play,'' said Ahmad Shaghasi, a 14- year-old freshman and a cornerback on the Hornets, the Alameda High School football team. ''The board is making decisions that will make us suffer. It affects our future.''

Trustees initially were considering eliminating every penny from high school sports and closing the school district's two swim centers, which would have saved $465,000.

But during a special meeting that stretched into the early hours of Wednesday morning, trustees opted instead to cut $265,000 from sports and the pools, which the public also use.

Athletic directors at the high schools will decide now how to allocate what's left of the money.

''We did not want to tell the directors that there was no money for pools, but that they must pay for tennis or golf,'' Trustee Tracy Lynn Jensen said. ''That wouldn't be fair.''

Along with a slate of cuts, the school board decided to put an emergency $120 residential parcel tax on the June ballot to help generate cash.

The annual tax would stop after four years -- but it would be on top of the current $189 tax that Alameda homeowners already pay for local schools.


Advertisement

The belt-tightening approved by the board includes eliminating music instruction for first- through third-graders, plus cutting back on middle school counselors and ending class size reduction for high school freshmen.

About $200,000 will be saved from the loss of the music program, according to Luz Cazares, the district's chief financial officer.

When Superintendent Ardella Dailey first suggested no longer paying for high school sports last month as a way to help make up the shortfall, the proposal quickly came under fire from parents, teachers and students, who packed the special board meeting at Chipman Middle School.

The outcry prompted trustees to continue earmarking some money toward sports and instead make other cuts, including laying off the district's public information officer.

''We are still strong as a team,'' said 17-year-old Jason Silsdorf, a 6-foot-11-inch player on the Jets, the Encinal High School basketball team. ''But we still want to make a stand. We are saying, 'Keep the teams.'''

The cost-saving measures that trustees approved cover just this fiscal year and total about $1.4 million.

Dailey proposes cutting an additional $2.2 million during the next fiscal year, including possibly closing schools.

Oakland and other Bay Area school districts are wrestling with similar money problems.

The student walk-out Wednesday culminated with a rally inside Kofman Auditorium in Historic Alameda High School.

''We are going to work hard, we are going to save our schools, we are going to save our programs, and we are going to be on the courts and football fields next year,'' said Kevin Gorham, Encinal High's athletic director. ''It's not about Alameda or Encinal. It's about us.''

Saleh Alsharay, a freshman at Alameda High School, said sports provide students with opportunities beyond the playing field.

''Sports help some of us go to college through scholarships,'' the 15-year-old Alsharay said. ''If we lose sports, we lose part of our school.''

Trustee Mike McMahon voted against making any cuts, saying he would rather run the risk of state sanctions than short-change students by eliminating programs.

Jensen voted against the parcel tax after trustees decided during the meeting to raise the maximum amount for a commercial parcel from $7,500 to $9,500.

''I fully support the parcel tax,'' she said. ''But I did not think that we should raise the amount after we had first told the public that it would be less.''

The tax will need a two-thirds majority to pass.

Alameda school officials have cut $7.7 million from their budget over the past seven years.

The current shortfall stems from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to cut at least $4 billion in overall education spending as a way to help make up the state budget deficit.

Schwarzenegger also wants to suspend Proposition 98, the constitutional amendment that guarantees K-12 schools and community colleges money from the state's general fund.

''While the governor's previous budgets have resulted in record funding for California's schools, fully funding education next year would take billions from other critical programs, also faced with 10 percent across-the-board cuts,'' said Dave Long, state secretary of education, in a written statement. ''These include health care for the elderly and disabled and our state's parks and prisons.''

Mike Cooper, Encinal High School's vice principal, said state officials need to rethink the way they provide money to schools.

''I think the battle is not with the Alameda school district,'' Cooper said. ''It's with the way that school districts are funded.''

Reach Peter Hegarty at phegarty@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-748-1654.