Going the Distance

Alameda Magazine – April 29th, 2011

On a wintery night last March, supporters of Alameda’s Measure A parcel tax enjoyed the sweet taste of victory at Tucker’s Ice Cream, hailing approval of the estimated $12 million parcel tax that will help shield local schools from budget cuts decimating districts across the state. For most, it was the end of months of phoning, meeting and knocking on doors. But for a few families it was simply the next step in a fight for education that may reach the California Supreme Court.

Alameda parents Michael and Martha Robles-Wong, Robert and Mialisa Bonta, Susan Davis and Peter Brand and Robert Siltanen and Gwen Meyer are four of the 27 families involved in Robles-Wong v. California, the historic education finance lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court in May 2010. The lawsuit, named for the Robles-Wong children, challenges the constitutionality of the state’s method of funding education. If won, it would force the Legislature to devise a better way to pay for schools.

Though the lawsuit names 62 plaintiffs from nine schools districts around the state, most media attention has focused, for good reason, on Alameda and its litigants. In the wake of the 1997 Alameda Naval Air Station closing and the district’s inability to receive compensatory education funding, Alameda was one of the first school districts to begin considering a lawsuit. Another reason is the litigants themselves: hardened veterans of multiple parcel tax campaigns, they are families whose core beliefs center on the power of education to mold character and strengthen democracy. And lastly – they’re not quitters.

Rob Siltanen, an attorney-turned-educator, was involved in the earliest planning stages. He teaches civics and government at Encinal High School and sees the equity issues of Robles-Wong in his classroom every day. 

“For some kids, the system is working well,” Siltanen says, surveying his classroom. “But what matters most is what’s not here — the empty desks where one kid dropped out, and where another left because the reading intervention program was cut.”

Siltanen, who has roots in Alameda going back two generations, says students today have more needs yet fewer resources. 

“There are more fractured families, higher numbers of ESL [English as a Second Language] kids, more transience. Educational demands are also higher. In the ’70s, you could get a job in the East Bay in some industrial facility — they’re not there anymore.”

Susan Davis is another litigant who’s made her profession in education. A longtime writer on educational topics, she covers Alameda for Davis is also a frequent volunteer in her children’s schools, and has witnessed the loss of teachers, nursing staff, counselors, librarians and enrichment programs. 

“I fear a generation of children ill-equipped to handle life — politically, economically, socially,” she says. “It’s very serious when you take millions of children and don’t educate them well.”

Educational consultant Mialisa Bonta works with school districts around the state to help them provide the best education within the confusing and often contradictory maze of state funding regulations. Perhaps most vexing, she says, is the disconnect between the state’s budget schedule and that of schools, which forces districts to fire teachers in May, only to re-hire them a few months later when the state budget passes.

“Our family believes in strong work ethics, and it’s very confusing for a 10-year-old child to try to understand why her wonderful, hard-working teacher has gotten fired,” Bonta said. “It’s incredibly demoralizing and sets a terrible tone for the classroom.”

The Robles-Wong family holds a special position in the lawsuit: It is named for their daughters, Maya and Milena. The two are as passionate about the lawsuit as their parents.

Maya, a senior, talks about how class sizes have almost doubled since she entered Alameda High School as a freshman. She remembers the waiting list of 20 students who couldn’t get into the advanced placement biology class she took in 2010.

“We students see the lack of funding every day in our classes, but you don’t care about it if you think you can’t do anything,” she says. The lawsuit named for her family gives Maya and all students the chance to finally defend their rights to a good education, she says.

Milena, 12, says she, too, felt empowered by her participation. “A lot of people look up to you because they’re relying on this for their education.”

All four families realize that joining the lawsuit means exposing their children to the media, possible deposition and the potential anger of anyone who disagrees with the lawsuit, but each decided to go forward. 

Co-counsel William Koski says he admires the “tenacity and courage” exhibited by the Alameda plaintiffs. “A lot of folks might want to get involved” in the lawsuit, he says, “but these four families recognized right from the start that this was a fight for the long haul.”

Mike Robles-Wong agrees. “When we signed on, none of us thought it would be for the short term,” he says. “We’re doing it because we realized the system is badly broken. We banded together to say, ‘enough’s enough.’ ’’

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