L.A. Advocates Fight Off Budget Cuts to Afterschool

Afterschool advocates in Los Angeles scored a last-minute victory in June, pressuring the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to withdraw a proposal to slash $7 million in funding for a widely acclaimed afterschool program, a move that would have left tens of thousands of children without a safe place to go at the end of the school day.

The restoration of funding came just days after a similar victory won by advocates in New York City.

The LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell program provides free afterschool to more than 40,000 children in the district, operating at more than 550 elementary and middle schools. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy acknowledged the program’s value, but facing a budget crunch, wrote in a February letter to parents that “I am left with no choice.”

Some schools in the district have other afterschool programs, often with funding from the state. But those programs have restrictions on which and how many children they can serve. Beyond the Bell is open to all.

Fighting Back
Opposition to the proposed cuts among parents and afterschool leaders had mounted since Deasy’s first announcement of the proposal. Among the critics was Carla Sanger, president and chief executive officer of the well-respected L.A.’s BEST After School Enrichment program, which receives support from the city of Los Angeles (separate from the school district). Sanger described the Beyond the Bell program as “critical, and badly needed in many communities where kids may not have supervision and would otherwise be on the streets, and potentially in danger…. We couldn’t simply stand by while 40,000 children and their families were put at risk of losing this service.”

Sanger says she and her colleagues reached out to other programs and to activists, joining forces with the Afterschool Action Coalition, a new umbrella group formed by local advocates specifically to defeat the proposed budget cut. Most of the coalition’s members were leaders of programs in the district that would not have been directly affected by the cutbacks. But they joined in the effort to save Beyond the Bell, nevertheless, Sanger explained, out of a sense of “moral urgency.” With leadership from local activists Jose and Lisa Sigala, the coalition spearheaded a petition drive, using an online service called change.org. The petition called on Deasy and school board members to restore funding for Beyond the Bell.

The petition took off quickly, registering about 1,000 signatures in its first week and growing from there, according to Jose Sigala. Each new signature was reported to school board members and the superintendent by email, resulting in a flood of messages.

L.A.’s BEST alerted its 7,000-plus network of contacts to the petition drive in a blast email, bringing in new signers, and other afterschool programs in the district did the same with their networks.

Support from City Council and the School Board
Meanwhile, LAUSD School Board Member Bennett Kayser championed the cause with his fellow board members. “We simply cannot dump 42,000 children onto the city streets and into latchkey status,” he said in a statement. “If the safety of our children is the top priority, our budget and the city’s must reflect it. This is a disaster that can and must be avoided.”

At the height of the battle, Kayser, afterschool leaders and more than 30 children participated in a news conference—with many of the children wearing latchkeys as a reminder of the stakes. The event was covered by local broadcast media, upping the pressure on Superintendent Deasy and Kayser’s school board colleagues.

Kayser and the advocates turned the volume up still louder by appealing to the Los Angeles City Council to adopt a resolution calling on the school board to reject the budget cuts. Jose Sigala drafted the text, and Council President Herb Wesson agreed to introduce it. As it happened, the superintendent was in attendance at the City Council meeting to participate in a ceremony honoring a retiring teacher. “I introduced myself to him,” Sigala said, “and he said, ‘We’re not going to be able to reinstate’ the funds for afterschool.” Undeterred, Sigala and colleagues successfully pressed the City Council to adopt the resolution that day, just a day before the school board was scheduled to consider the proposed cutbacks.

The drumbeat of pressure took its toll. Victory on the school board would require four votes to reject the budget cut. “When we started, we had only three,” Sigala said. But after the City Council resolution and all the other grassroots contact and media exposure, Sigala said advocates counted six votes to reinstate funding. Superintendent Deasy may well have done a similar calculation. Within hours of the City Council vote, he issued a news release saying he had identified money to allow for a restoration of funding for Beyond the Bell.

“Ultimately, everybody came together to make this happen,” Sigala said, “from school board members to teachers to parents…. We’ll continue with the coalition when school is back in session and continue to advocate and organize. We might have to have this battle again next year, so we’re going to try to create a mechanism by which parents, students and community members can come together to say how important these programs are to kids.”

This story originally appeared in the Afterschool Advocate (Vol. 13, Issue 8).

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