Three San Leandro High School students announced Tuesday night that they are holding a hunger strike to protest the fifth year of budget cuts in the school district.
"Hopefully, I draw to your attention, just like my body cannot function on the bare minimum, neither can the student body," Veronica Mandujano, 18, a senior, told the San Leandro Unified School District board of trustees.
Kayla Ely and Anai Rosales, 17-year-old seniors, also said they would stop eating the next morning to protest the board's actions. "If you're going to let us suffer, then let us suffer, but we will be the ones standing up for the kids' future," Mandujano said.
"We really respect your commitment to what you believe in. The impact is real, and it's devastating, and we hear that," board President Morgan Mack-Rose said. "I certainly wouldn't want anyone to jeopardize their health for anything."
In a Facebook message Wednesday, Ely said she had begun her hunger strike "with her peers."
Superintendent Cindy Cathey said Wednesday she had talked to two of the striking students and their families. "We're talking with them to help them understand how the budget process works," she said. "Our job is to make sure students are safe and healthy ... we'll also talk about alternate ways to express themselves."
After hearing from students, teachers and parents for about an hour, the board voted 7-0 to approve pink slips for 42 full-time equivalent certificated employees for the ensuing school year, and nine full-time equivalent classified employees. The district has a March 15 deadline to issue the pink slips.
However, depending on negotiations with the district's bargaining units and the state's revised budget released in May, all employees issued pink slips may not be laid off.
About $11 million, or 13 percent of the district's revenues, has been taken by the state since 2007. The board has approved cuts of $1.4 million from its budget for the next year due to state take-aways. It is also preparing a contingency budget that will go into effect Jan. 1 if tax initiatives proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown are not passed by voters in November. The contingency budget would cut an additional $2.5 million midway through the school year, lay off personnel and eliminate the district's sports and music programs, among other cuts.
During public comments, speakers implored the board to dip into its reserve fund to stave off cuts to personnel and programs. The district is required to hold 3 percent of its revenues in reserve. However, Mack-Rose said the reserve fund only covers about three weeks of district salaries, and that the state requires the district to have a plan to restore the reserves the following year.
Trustee Mike Katz-Lacabe said using the reserves could subject the district to state control, and then budget cuts would be decided by outsiders.
Patty Fishbaugh, a teacher in the district and a parent of children in San Leandro schools, told the board that elimination of sports would hurt students who rely on sports scholarships to pay for college.
Richard Mellor, a San Leandro resident involved in the Occupy Oakland movement, railed against bank bailouts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he called for a grass-roots movement to fight school cuts. Mellor said there is plenty of money in society to pay for schools. "Make the banks pay," he said.
Trustee Carmen Sullivan, who is an intensive care nurse, encouraged Mandujano, Ely and Rosales to read up on the health dangers of a hunger strike, but said she understood the students' actions. "Education is a civil right," she said.
The three students staging the hunger strike are members of San Leandro High's Social Justice Academy, which is a small learning community that encourages youth activism, self expression and critical resistance, according to Erica Viray-Santos, a teacher and coordinator of the program. Viray-Santos said she supports the spirit of the hunger strike, but said it was not school sanctioned and that she had advised the students against it.
Board members urged the public to contact their representatives in Sacramento through letters and telephone calls to urge them not to cut money from schools.
"I'm tired of being the bad guy," Mack-Rose said.
Jason Sweeney covers San Ramon, Danville, and the San Ramon Valley and Dublin School districts. Contact him at 925-847-2123. Follow him at Twitter.com/Jason_Sweeney.