Protesters support Modesto teachers

A standing-room-only crowd confronted Modesto City Schools trustees Monday over budget cuts that threaten to eliminate hundreds of teacher jobs.

Students, parents, community members and district employees took turns advocating for their interests, even though budget decisions were not on the agenda.

About 30 high school students and recent graduates marched about one mile from downtown Modesto to the district office to protest teacher layoffs.

"Before layoffs, they should do everything else," Davis High School sen-ior Katie Burns said while waiting for the meeting to start. "If people have to get laid off, it should start with administrators."

The thought of particularly good young teachers getting laid off bothers Davis senior Jamiee Cook.

"It should be less based on seniority," she said about how the district decides who stays and who goes. "Some of the best teachers haven't been in the district that long."

In brainstorming solutions before the meeting, Davis senior Jack Cooke suggested saving teachers by increasing property taxes.

"Raising taxes would be in everyone's best interest in the long run," Jack said. He said adult community members he has talked to say they are willing to pay more taxes to help preserve school programs and teachers. "Teacher layoffs should be the last resort."

About 15 of the more than 125 people at the meeting shared their budget concerns with trustees.

Some of the young speakers took shots at the district's spending priorities.

Enochs High senior David O'Neil complimented trustees on the four large plasma flat screens adorning their boardroom: "It's nice to know we can afford such technology during these difficult times."

Sal Jimenez, another Enochs sen-ior, expressed opposition to the travel allowances given to district administrators, including Superintendent Arturo Flores.

"Mr. Flores you receive $7,800 a year for travel," Sal said. "Where do you travel to, Argentina?"

He wasn't the only one who blasted the travel allowances.

In a report on the topic, Flores detailed how Modesto City Schools pays it managers more than $211,000 a year to drive their personal cars around the district. Most of those managers receive $500 per month, whether or not they drive anywhere.

That outraged several speakers.

"This is a serious issue for every employee of this district," teachers union leader Barney Hale said. He noted that teachers had their compensation cut last year but administrators were allowed to keep their entire travel stipend. "This is simply not fair and equitable."

Flores disagreed, saying, "The managers did take their fair share in cuts."

Several trustees expressed concern about the mileage allowances.

"Something has to be done about it. It cannot remain the way it is," Trustee Steven Grenbeaux said. He asked Flores to bring the mileage issue back at the next meeting. "Give us some options we can look at."

The district is scraping to find places to cut $25 million from next year's budget. Last week it notified 517 teachers, counselors and librarians, plus 67 managers that they may lose their jobs come July.

Meanwhile, the district is negotiating with its employee unions, seeking pay cuts of about 16 percent. If the unions agree to lower salaries, the district may not have to lay off anyone.

Modesto teachers are "well paid," Hale acknowledged.

The average Modesto teacher earns $79,132 for working 185 days per year. That's $427.74 per workday.

To help ease the district budget woes, trustees voted unanimously Monday to spend up to $27,500 on a professional survey to determine whether Modesto voters would be willing to raise property taxes for schools.

The Modesto Bee polled its readers on that topic last weekend. Of the 1,292 people who voted online, 61 percent said they would not be willing to pay any additional taxes for schools.

Passing a new property tax would require support from two-thirds of voters.