Parents step up fight to save school programs

School boards and parents expected to deal with deficits. But as the budget season progressed, property values continued to fall. Metro area school officials revised their spending plans downward more than half a billion dollars, and the blade sank closer to home.

After fighting budget cuts this year, many parents say they are just beginning to make their voices heard.

In Fulton County, a parent group raised $8,000 to try to save the elementary school band and orchestra program. In Clayton, they protested a plan to end bus transportation to charter school. And in DeKalb, they turned back a threat to close neighborhood elementary schools.

"This is probably the first organized fight I've had with the board, but that's how important this is to me," said Deidra Williams of Jonesboro.

Even though her children weren't affected, the 43-year-old mother of three regularly attended Clayton County board meetings to argue against cutting bus service to charter schools in the district.

"I feel strongly that they needed to continue bus service because not everyone has the luxury of taking their kids to school," said Williams, who also sent e-mails to board members.   "It really felt good getting involved in such a big way."

She intends to continue her efforts, even though Clayton officials still plan to reduce the bus service to charter schools. Williams is most proud, perhaps, of her daughter, Aris Williams, who spoke in English and Spanish at a recent board meeting on behalf of fellow students who will have to contend with changes in bus service.

The parental activism is “kind of unprecedented,” said Tim Callahan, spokesperson for the 79,000 member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “I think a lot of people are starting to connect the dots with those who they vote for and what happens to the education budget, at least I hope so.”

Up until now, Callahan said, school districts have been able to get by making cuts that were less visible to students and their parents and now that’s no longer possible.

“Only in this last year have those cuts started to affect students and parents in such dramatic ways,” he said.

Sometimes their efforts paid off. Parents in DeKalb County convinced officials to back off  a plan to shut down four schools to save money.

"It was exhausting work but it was worth it," said Bill Armstrong, a father of two and president of the parent council at Huntley Hill Elementary and Montessori School in Chamblee.

When officials began talking about shutting down his kid's Montessori school early this year, Armstrong said, parents mobilized within 48 hours.

"All we had to do was send out an e-mail to our core group," he said.

Soon they were lobbying district administrators, combing the Web site for information, courting the media to keep their fight in the public eye. When board meetings were held, they were there even when it meant leaving work early to get there.

At about the same time, North Fulton parents were doing some of the same legwork for their beloved elementary band and orchestra program.

Joel Dallow shot off an e-mail to the Superintendent Cindy Loe and board members urging them to reconsider converting the district's popular band program into a fee-based after-school program.

“I strongly urge you to …  find other means of funding,” he wrote in a Jan. 15 e-mail.

Five days later, Loe responded saying she supported the program but made no promises.

Dallow, who just four years earlier had waged a successful fight to save the program, understood the times were different. The economy had tanked but the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra cellist knew firsthand the value of music education.

He formed a coalition to fight.

Lori Carbone, a 46-year-old mother of two from Johns Creek -- who is battling breast cancer and works full-time -- was one of the first to sign on.

"Where I might have sat back before and [said] let somebody else take care of it, I saw it as a chance to participate in something I knew was important," she said.

Carbone said she was limited in what she could do, but she could send e-mails and attend board meetings.

"A little bit can make a big difference," she said.

But to make a bigger impact, the Fulton music program parents also dug into their pockets and raised some $8,000 to hire John Benham, a nationally known music consultant, to help them lobby the board.

At Dallow’s urging, they expanded their focus from just reinstating the band program to pressing the state for adequate funding for education.

In April, the school board voted to move ahead with the plan, asking local contractors to submit proposals to run the after-school program. They also voted to increase the millage rate one mill, something band parents had been advocating for weeks as a way to either reinstate the program or, as a compromise, provide a fifth-grade-only program.

But the board said any money it recouped from the tax increase would be used elsewhere.

Undaunted, parents hoped Benham’s analysis of the cost-effectiveness of the music program would be the key. They forwarded the results to the board, asking them to postpone their vote to hire Music Matters to run the after-school program until they could meet and discuss Benham’s findings with them.

Dallow said board members have refused to meet.

The district is so far into the budget process that such a meeting would not be "appropriate at this time," said Fulton schools spokeswoman Allison Toller.

But Dallow and the other parents believe the board owes them an opportunity to speak beyond the four minutes allowed at school board meetings.

“I want to sit down with the board and superintendent and plead our case and I’m not going to give up on that," Dallow said. “I am going to continue to push this issue. Their salaries are paid by us and they are ignoring us. It’s unconscionable that they would act this way.”

Dallow said the parents will fight for the program until June 15, when the final budget is expected to be adopted.

After that, he said, “I may take a little break, but we really need to pay attention to what this board is doing.”

Districts that still must adopt a budget:

Cobb County, June 9

Fulton County, June 15

Forsyth County, June 17

Cherokee County, July 28

Clayton County, June 28

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