Calif. high school cuts newspaper, classes due to budget crisis

CALIFORNIA— When journalism students at San Marin HighSchool learned that because of proposed statewide budget cuts they might losethe school journalism program and student newspaper this fall, they decided tospeak up.Student editors and their parents attended school boardmeetings to trumpet the valuable skills that journalismprovides.“My experience at San Marin was heightened because of myexperience in the journalism class and has reaffirmed what I want to do with therest of my life,” said Niki Kidd, who was the Pony Express editorin chief for the 2002-2003 school year. “It kind of tears me up inside tothink that someone five years younger than me might not have that experience andmaybe will pick a different career that won’t make them as happy in lifeas journalism might have.”Kidd and her fellow editors spoke at a recent school board meeting, to bolster community support of saving thejournalism class where the newspaper is produced. Because school board meetingsare public forums, none of the school board members responded to individualcomments, Kidd said.“The people in attendance seemed prettyresponsive to what we were saying, even if the school board was not,” shesaid. The school board decided on May 6 to eliminate the journalismclass, along with yearbook, student council, drama and computer classes. Through an emergency fund, the parent-teacher association latersaved the yearbook and student council but not journalism.California’sreported budget shortfall of $2.2 billion is one of the largest inthe nation, according to Steve O’Donoghue, journalism adviser for theGreen and Gold newspaper at Freemont High School in Oakland. He refers tojournalism as one of the things schools perceive as “frills” thatget cut first at schools throughout the state of California.NovatoUnified School District officials insist that in a fiscal crisis, selectingwhere to make the cuts and what classes to eliminate is a difficult one,according to district spokesperson Dianne Pavia.“Nobody wants tocut classes that are obviously great for kids,” she said.“We’ve had to do some significant layoffs, but there’s a hopethat we’ll be able to bring some of these classes back in thefall.”According school board member Roger Collins, thebudget cuts for the Novato District are $3 million. Between the two districthigh schools, Novato and San Marin, about $250,000 or four teachers had to beeliminated. Collins said that by cutting the journalism program at San Marin,they saved about $15,000, which is the cost to employ a teacher for thatelective.Ronnie Campagna, adviser to the Pony Express, said thateliminating the journalism program does not save the district any money becauseshe is still being paid to teach English next year. She said the 45 studentsthat signed up for a journalism class are still required to enroll in anotherclass during the journalism time slot. Instead, Campagna contends thatthe underlying reason the journalism program was eliminated is due toher support of the student journalists when tackling controversial subjectmatter in the Pony Express. She said the paper has continuallybeen under fire from the administration and the school board, who have objectedto any articles that pertain to sex and drugs or criticize the administration.Most of the school’s objections are heard through the rumor mill, Campagnasaid, instead of direct communication with thestudent journalists. “No one ever talks to me or the kids aboutit,” she said. “It doesn’t get into my evaluation either. Thepaper and the kids get lots of praise from parents, students and the localcommunity and press.”Campagna said school officials do not appreciate her open-minded approach in allowing students to tackle controversial topics for articles.“I have been teaching journalismfor 18 years,” said Campagna. “Because the administration isconservative, they don’t like a liberal, New York Jew like myself being the adviser. They don’t believe that the kids should have First Amendment rights. They insultingly believe that I choose the story ideas, and I write for the paper.” Kidd said Campagna remains dedicated to asserting her students’ rights under the First Amendment despite adversity.“Ronnie is open about students having their FirstAmendment rights as long as we stand within not being slanderous, libelous, orobscene,” she said. “She lets us print whatever we want even ifthere might be viewpoints administration members may not agree with or schoolboard members may not agree with.”O’Donoghue, the Freemontadviser, said he worries that the budget cuts are a way for San Marin officialsto evade lengthy union grievance procedures because they can claim that theelimination of the journalism program was based on program need ––meaning, they need a teacher to teach one course instead of another. As a resultof the journalism class being cut, Campagna will be teaching four Englishclasses next year rather than three that she taught this school year.“Sometimes to get at the kids, they [the administration] lop offthe head, kill the teacher –– so to speak bureaucratically–– in hopes that someone more malleable will show up,” hesaid. “In this case, if they shut down the program they don’t haveto worry about it all.”O’Donoghue said San Marin administratorsare able to attribute the elimination of journalism program to sweeping costcutbacks instead of their own dissatisfaction with the content of thenewspaper. Because Campagna is an adviser with a strong standing at the school,and more than 27 years of solid evaluations, this is a way to take away some ofher privileges, he said.This year there has been no documented evidenceexpressing opposition to the newspaper, said Campagna. District officials wouldnot comment on their views of the school paper, and Principal Loeta Andersen didnot return several phone calls or an e-mail requesting comment about theelimination of the journalism program.Pavia, the district spokesperson,acknowledges the benefits of journalism classes and agrees that it fills arequirement and looks good on a transcript. She said she believes there areother classes students can take to fulfill the college preparatoryrequirement.“It’s not as if you don’t take journalismyou won’t get into a good school,” said Pavia.The San Marinjournalism course is sanctioned by the University of California system as acollege preparatory elective. Campagna said that for that reason alone, at leastfour members of the school board are trying to save the program. When Kidd spokeat the school board meeting she stressed the importance of journalism as a UCrequirement. She said her journalism experience helped her get into UCLA, whereshe will study communications in the fall.On March 10, in response tothe impending statewide budget cuts, the California Newspaper PublishersAssociation issued a statement outlining the benefits of journalism classes, whichincludes the acquiring of hands-on experience and marketable skills for manyprofessions. The association also said a student newspaper functions as a forumfor the exchange of ideas.“Students get a hands-on education onthe rights and responsibilities of a free press that are availablenowhere else. These lessons cannot be learned just by reading about them, and,like anything else, they cannot be learned without making mistakes or generatingdiscomfort and controversy,” the association wrote in itsrelease.Kidd said the thought of not having the journalism program andnewspaper is difficult to grapple because they allow students to vocalize theiropinions and ideas in a constructive way.“Journalism helpsstudents who are interested in becoming more involved in their community butdon’t want to take absolute leadership roles, such as a leadership skillsclass,” she said. “For some kids [the school newspaper] is the onlynews resource they have. It allows students to know what is going on in thecommunity and in their school and maybe do something about it.”According to Pavia, the school board has responded to students’opposition to eliminating the journalism program by suggesting that the paperrun as an extracurricular activity next year, although she did not providespecifics on how it would be funded. Campagna said the Pony Expressis subsidized by student body funds, but it also is supported throughadvertisements students sell to the community and subscriptions that parents buyfor a donation of $25 to $100. Collins said the school would have to pay theadviser only a stipend, much like the coach of an after-schoolsport.Kidd said the paper would not function effectively if it is forcedinto a club format.“I know that for me and other students in thejournalism class, time is an issue. We all have a lot of after-school andlunchtime commitments,” she said. “I have a friend who is the editorat another school where it’s a club, and he says that it’s prettyimpossible to have people turn in an article on time because there is nopressure to do so.”Collins, a proponent of the journalism program,agrees that journalism is an elective better suited as a class, instead of aclub.“[Electives becoming clubs] is not a great solution,certainly not for journalism because there are other problems here,” hesaid. “I don’t think you get college credit for journalism ifit’s just a club. It looks OK on a transcript, but it would look better ifyou took the class and got credit for it at the collegelevel.”Collins said that a way to bring back the journalismprogram is through course loading done every fall. In a course loadingevaluation, school officials look at how many students are signed up for classesin each department and offer more or less of a section based on studentinterest. If California Gov. Gray Davis passes the budget before the school yearstarts in September, there is a chance the administration can hire additionalteachers or bring back cut electives in each department, Collins said.For the English department, this could mean journalism or yearbook, hesaid.Despite the uncertainty, Collins insists that the situation ineducation cutbacks is only temporary and is hopeful the economy will rejuvenateitself in the future, he said. “I am confident that we will comeback. The state is in a slump now, but we won’t be in a slump five yearsfrom now,” he said. “So even if we have to cut great programs, andwe are going to cut programs like reading and journalism, we are going to bringthem back as soon as we possibly can.” According toO’Donoghue, the support of the community is a valuable asset when fightingto keep a program at the school. At San Marin, student journalists interviewedwith a local radio station, and parents also attended school board meetings, hesaid.Although the future for San Marin’s journalism programremains unclear, Campagna and her students remain cautiously optimistic thatwith the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 and the induction of newsuperintendent, Jan LaToree-Derby, an advocate for the journalism program, thatthere is a chance the class can return this fall. “The studentshave been fantastic,” she said. “They have gone to meetings andspoken in front of the board with the support of their parents. They have keptfighting, and they are going about their lives as if the journalism program isstill going to go on.”