At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, a big yellow school bus was parked outside Ocean View Elementary School as adults and children wearing red shirts began to gather on the lawn. Parents greeted each other and their children's teachers with hugs and smiles. Children played on the grass and broke into the snack supplies early.
At 8:40, more than 30 people boarded the bus and drove off toward Sacramento. Their purpose was to convince state lawmakers not to make cuts to state subsidies for pre-school and after-school early childhood education programs.
In May, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to balance the state budget, in part by eliminating childcare subsidies for low income families. In June, Albany Unified School District laid off all 34 employees of Albany's public preschool and afterschool programs. According to district Superintendent Marla Stephenson, more than 100 of the 396 children in the programs receive subsidies and the programs will not break even without state funds. Stephenson is working to restructure the programs and keep them open, hopefully with some scholarships for low income families. But, in the meantime, parents and teachers decided to take it upon themselves to stop the proposed state cuts.
As the bus crossed over the bridge to Vallejo, parent organizers Teleli Brito and Katherine Stambaugh explained the strategy.
"Today we will visit members of the Budget Conference Committee – these are the people who must work out a budget deal. We are bringing gifts made by the children to thank the Democratic members for their support of childcare funding. For the Republicans we have information packets and over 300 letters from people in Albany urging support for childcare," Brito said.
Stambaugh, whose oldest son attends Marin School and the Tupelo on-site afterschool program, explained how she got involved organizing the Sacramento trip.
"My son came home and told me that his friend would not be able to attend Tupelo anymore because his parents couldn't afford it (without the state subsidy). He wanted to know why money should keep friends apart," Stambaugh's eyes filled with tears. "He asked if we could pay for his friend to attend. Well, unfortunately, we can't. But I can do this."
The director of AUSD childcare programs, Susan Stevenson, joined parents and children on the bus, as did several of the teachers in the program. Leslie Barta, a teacher at the Albany Children's Center, spent Monday and Tuesday packing boxes for the center's planned move from University Village to a new location in the former home of MacGregor High School.
"I'm tired," she said, "but I needed to be here. I understand about the state budget problems, I really do, but taking away people's access to childcare, that's just too much."
After unloading the bus in front of the state capital and organizing their letters into bright blue folders decorated with children's handprints, Albany's determined lobbyists broke into three groups and wound their way through the maze of offices telling their stories to staff members and legislative aides.
"I've been studying for three years towards getting into the master's in psychology program," said Tatiana Ribiero, "I got my letter of admittance on the same day that I got the letter saying the Albany childcare programs may have to shut down. I can't do this without childcare."
Yo Yo Hueng explained that, in addition to raising her two children, she studies English at Laney College and works part-time for the Albany schools as a classroom aide.
"If I don't have childcare, I just won't be able to work and I won't be able to go to school," she said.
Inside the offices of State Assembly Member Jim Neilson (R), Katherine Stambaugh brought the point home.
"Childcare programs create jobs for providers and for parents. This is crucial for the California economy," Stambaugh said.
In the offices of Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D), parents were told by an aide that "Democrats simply won't allow a budget to pass that does not include childcare."
Standing outside the offices of Gov. Schwarzenegger, where a digital clock ticked off the number of days the State budget is overdue (14), parents allowed that they were not so confident.
"I'm kind of upset really," said David Gesinger, "because corporations are getting tax breaks while people are losing their jobs and children are losing their childcare."
"What are the chances that this will work?" asked Hueng. No one answered.
On the bus home, children played together in the back seat and the atmosphere was positive.
"Between those of us on the bus and those who took cars, over 45 people participated in today's action" said Brito. "Considering our small Albany community, that is just amazing."