The Accidental Activists
Moms in Lafayette fight to find funds for public schools.
It was a familiar story. Budget cuts were taking their toll on public schools. Science labs were on the chopping block. Music classes were being axed. Teachers’ aides were being cut back. Academic calendar days were being crossed off as furlough days. Seven mothers with students in Lafayette’s Springhill Elementary met one evening, wrung their hands, and commiserated.
“We all moved to the Lafayette area for the public school education,” says one of those moms, Suzy Pak, who was at that meeting last February, “so it was just demoralizing to hear from the school district that we would have to fight for what we thought was part of the general curriculum.”
Luckily, the women’s interaction didn’t end with hand-wringing. The seven made a commitment that they would find new sources of funding for their public school district and decided to call themselves Lafayette for Education. They were not thinking bake sales or even auctions, which although they can be very profitable are subject to the condition of the economy. They wanted funding that was stable and secure.
Their first project came to them. Realizing that a parcel tax called Measure B was the most important school funding issue of the moment, designed to raise $1.5 million per year over four years, they hit the streets, walking neighborhoods and working the phones to educate the community and get out the vote. Passage was no slam dunk. Eighty percent of Lafayette residents do not have children in the Lafayette School District.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these women, all educated and with high-level professional experience, built a website and used it, as well as e-mail groups, Facebook, and Twitter, to organize. Andrea Rich, who is the founder of an Internet venture called Mummies List, said the e-mail groups provided a great start. “We quickly saw the Google group grow to not only parents, but to members of other communities, school board members, city councilmen, teachers, and even some legislators.”
Although none of the original organizers had ever used Twitter before getting together, Rich says they got just the help they needed—from the babysitter of one of their kids. Now, among their Twitter followers is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, controversial reformer of D.C. schools Michelle Rhee, and the California Teachers Union. Despite how quickly they made themselves heard, the women of Lafayette for Education say they’re really not the activist types.
“The whole thing has been by happenstance,” says Pak. “I don’t think we considered ourselves activists by any means.”
When the members of Lafayette for Education heard one day last spring that opponents of Measure B planned to speak at a city council meeting that very evening, they quickly put the word out. Two opponents spoke at the meeting, and about 40 supporters of Measure B also turned out, all with handmade signs that had been suggested via Lafayette for Education’s various channels of communication.
On May 3, Measure B passed with 74.3 percent of the vote.
The volunteers didn’t stop there. All with different passions and interests and even different political affiliations, the group committed to continue their quest for reliable funding. “It’s definitely not a one-party group, and we don’t all vote the party line,” Pak says. “What binds us is knowing we have to find new resources for public schools.”
One member of the group, Jean Follmer, began steeping herself in the intricacies of school funding by the state, particularly Proposition 13. While acknowledging that a full-on repeal of the 1978 property tax measure would be near impossible, Follmer supports proposals to repeal the part of Proposition 13 that applies to commercial properties. She expects a proposal will gain traction and be put before voters in November 2013.
“I am very impressed with the enthusiasm, passion, and can-do attitude of Lafayette for Education members,” says Lafayette School District Superintendent Fred Brill. “I like the fact that they are working at the local level, but also interested in the policies and practices taking place at the state level that impact all students in California.”
Less far off time-wise and a little closer to home is the group’s idea to increase the sales tax in Lafayette by half of one percent, which city officials estimate will generate about $1 million a year. As in Santa Monica, where a similar measure was passed to benefit the schools, half of the revenue would go to the city, and the other half would go directly to the school district.
With the annual district budget at $26 million, $500,000 is certainly not make-or-break. Pak, however, makes the point that it’s a start. “That $500,000 is teachers’ salaries; it could reinstate the music program, increase the number of hours that teacher aides work in the classroom,” she says. As a result of budget cutbacks, teacher aides spend 7.5 hours a week in classrooms at Springhill Elementary. At the same time, class size in the district for fourth-graders and fifth-graders has gone up to as high as 29 students.
Pak says none of the members of Lafayette for Education is naive enough to think that the group’s ideas have never been tried before. Just the same, she says she thinks they have the potential to hit on something because they have a fresh and varied perspective.
Lafayette City Council member Don Tatzin, who has worked with the group, says he thinks Lafayette for Education will succeed in pushing through at least some of its proposals.
“They are professional women who are also mothers,” Tatzin says. “You’ve got lawyers, people who are in finance, people whose training is in marketing. It’s a pretty highly talented and well-spoken group.
“I think you’ve got some future school board and city council members there.”
Although Tatzin says the idea of raising the sales tax has been met with opposition by merchants in the past, that was before neighboring cities raised theirs as sources of city funding. “Over time, I think we would get more support,” he says. “We know that people move to Lafayette for the public schools. There’s a virtuous circle with the merchants and new people coming in.”
Members of Lafayette for Education have aligned with a similar group they discovered after beginning to organize. Called Educate Our State, the other group had similar origins and an identical mission. Seven PTA moms across California started Educate Our State, and by last spring, they had organized rallies in 21 communities throughout the state to educate people about school funding. Lafayette for Education held its own rally, an early-morning Wake Up Lamorinda event, which some 200 people attended, many of them dressed in their pajamas.
Meanwhile, Lafayette for Education’s numbers are growing. The original membership of seven has grown to at least 80 and could be as high as 150, although the group has not pinned down what constitutes membership yet.
This summer, Lafayette for Education members will work on “infrastructure,” Pak says, mainly so that when other people want to become involved, there will be a clear procedure. And Rich says she sees renewed commitment on the part of the original members. “Moms aren’t all just bake sales and book clubs,” she says. “We mean business. You mess with our kids’ education, and we’re going to rally to fight for them.”