Central Valley

Film on Congress features Yosemite school

WASHINGTON -- A tiny Yosemite-area school stars in a new documentary film that teaches big lessons about how Congress works.

It's not always a pretty picture.

The Wawona Elementary School and its nine students waited years for lawmakers to finish a bill providing additional money for the school. Compromises abounded; the potential funding shrank. Now, the school's congressional adventure is the focus of a 20-minute film set for nationwide classroom distribution.

"We are so happy with it," Wawona teaching principal Michelle Stauffer said of the film. "It just shows you can't simply go to Congress and say, 'OK, I want a bill.' "

In the new documentary, titled "The Making of a Law," award-winning filmmaker Robe Imbriano, sets the Wawona school legislation as a Capitol Hill case study. Using interviews, animation and some amusingly apt old film clips, Imbriano follows the school funding bill from its conception in December 2001 and through various twists and turns to its completion in December 2005.

The bill in question, authored by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, steers extra money to Wawona, Yosemite Valley and El Portal schools. Many of the schools' students are children of National Park Service or Yosemite National Park concessions staffers.

Radanovich and the bills' hometown supporters initially considered it a noncontroversial idea that helps support remote, rural schools serving federal employees.

"The first time, we thought it was a no-brainer," said Cindy Kroon, mother of a Wawona School sixth-grader. "We were surprised it took so many years."

But the bill's twists and turns also helped attract Imbriano and his fellow documentary filmmakers.

The film is part of what's called The Constitution Project, funded by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. The nonprofit group says it wants to improve civics education and public understanding of democratic institutions. In a related film, for instance, Imbriano examines a crucial Supreme Court case from the 1960s.

The films target a high school audience, or younger. A cartoon embodiment of the Wawona school bill walks through Capitol Hill corridors, slumping in despair when doors shut in its face. A scene from a cheesy old horror movie illustrates the dire fate of most of the 9,000-plus bills introduced in Congress each year: Most die.

"The documentary really shows how hard the process is," Stauffer said.

The filmmakers, who could not be reached to comment this week, conducted most of their interviews last fall. The completed film was delivered to Radanovich's office and the Wawona school in recent days.

Stauffer, who has recently married, was known as Michelle Horner when Radanovich introduced the first Yosemite-area schools bill.

It was ambitious, with no limit on how much National Park Service funding could go to the three schools.

Park officials worried the school funding might shortchange other park priorities. Other lawmakers worried about setting a precedent. Radanovich kept cutting the dollar amount, finally settling on a maximum of $400,000 annually. The actual amount provided has been much less, depending on what park service officials think they can afford.

"There have been so many rocky roads," Stauffer said, "but there have also been so many wonderful people along the way of those rocky roads."

By happenstance, Stauffer was speaking in the Capitol.

Nearby, six of her students and several parents were listening, or not, as a tour guide expounded on the architectural glories of the room known as the Rotunda. The Wawona delegation spent a week in Washington, returning home Thursday after touring all the civic sites.

"My life is now complete," sixth-grader Azani Pusina said at one point, Stauffer reported. "I've seen the Washington Monument."

In Washington, though, even completed tasks have a habit of coming back. The Yosemite-area schools funding bill, for instance, expires next year. That means it will soon be time to start writing another bill, Stauffer said.