High School Ag funding back in budget

Earlier proposal was to cut funding - governor could still veto ag grants

editor@sierrastar.comJune 17, 2014 

Yosemite and Minarets high school's agricultural programs, including Future Farmers of America (FFA) Clubs, exhaled a collective sigh of relief Monday morning when they learned Gov. Jerry Brown's $156.4 Billion 2014-2015 state budget included funding for their programs. The budget was approved by the state legislature Sunday, June 15, just hours before the deadline.

In his preliminary budget, Brown proposed the complete elimination of funding for the Agricultural Education Incentive Grant, which supports hands-on agricultural education in public schools. The funding was put back in the budget by both houses of the legislature, although the funding is not secure until the governor signs the budget within the next 11 days. Brown has the option of "blue lining," or vetoing the funds out of the budget.

The agricultural grant program is designed to provide matching funds for districts who commit to meeting state-approved program standards in ag education, including classroom instruction, supervised agricultural experience projects, and leadership training through FFA.

At the time the funding was cut, Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Association, said the association was extremely disappointed that Governor Brown made the proposal to eliminate ag education funding in California, the leading agricultural-producing state in the nation.

Prior to the funds being added back into the budget, Aschwanden stressed the importance of high school ag programs throughout the state and said the elimination of such funding would be a terrible mistake.

"We hope the governor signs the budget with the ag grant program in it so we can move forward to ensure these ag programs remain in our schools," Aschwanden said Monday.

More than 300 high schools and 75,000 students statewide participating in ag education would be affected by the cut.

This school year, the Yosemite Unified School District provided $7,000 to the ag program with $7,000 matched by the state grant program.

Jeff Kirby has been a welding teacher in the Yosemite High ag program for seven years and was just recently named the department head. Like Aschwanden, he also is hopeful the funds will remain in the budget.

Kirby said that without the state funds, many leadership and competitive individual and team opportunities could come to an end.

"Without the grant funds, we would be forced to look at cutting some of our competitive teams, like welding, best informed green hand, and natural resource teams," Kirby said. "We would not be able to help offset the cost for students to attend leadership conferences and national and state conventions. The money we receive from the Ag Incentive Grant is a major part of our founding and without it, our students will suffer."

Ursa Stearns, a parent of Yosemite High students, said she embraces the FFA classes and programs the school offers, teaching her children leadership skills, public speaking, responsibility in caring for animals, financial and business skills.

"The FFA program has taught my children values and hard work, lessons they will use every day of their lives," Stearns said. "To have this possibly taken away from the youth will leave a huge void in their development as young adults. I certainly hope the grant funds remain in the budget."

Yosemite High parent Sandra Wade feels programs like FFA provide hands-on vocational training that is vital for all students and was not happy when she heard there was a chance the state funding would not be available.

At Minarets, the matching number from the state this year was $24,000, dollars that are used for a number of programs and FFA.

This year, the FFA livestock judging team beat out 50 other teams to become the champion team in the state. The team of Jordyn Samper, Mikaela Finger, Shyann Mattes, and Bailey Samper, will travel to Louisville, Ky., in late October to compete for the national title during the national FFA convention. The team is coached by Laurie Samper, Clay Samper, and ag instructor Kristi Mattes.

Mattes has been the Minarets lead ag teacher since the school opened six years ago.

"It is great that the legislative body has put the funding back in the budget," Mattes said. "Should it get blue lined by the governor it would be very difficult for our ag program at Minarets to continue at its current pace. It would also mean that students and their families would have to incur more of the costs for travel and meals. We hope that our district would be able to support the everyday costs of running the shop, the school farm laboratory and our classes. These are necessary to maintaining integrity of our project based learning."

Mattes said if the funding is taken out of the budget, other FFA leadership, career development and supervised project activities would be dependent on fundraising and financial support from parents.

"As an educator, I want to make sure our program is available to every student as opposed to a select few," Mattes said. "When we founded this country it was an agriculturally based. It is important that we continue to educate our children as to the importance of agriculture in relation to their everyday survival."

Not only is Lauri Fringer an involved parent, she also works in the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Madera, and is the 4-H program representative for the county.

"It isn't just about plows and cows," Fringer said when speaking about ag classes and FFA. "It is a technology based world we live in, from raising livestock, producing crops, and scientific field analysis. It would be a tremendous mistake to take funding like this away from the very hands that feed the world."

Fringer said it's scary that there is event the slightest chance the funds could be removed from the state budget.

"If these funds that directly support agriculture programs are cut from the budget, the impact of future agriculturalists would be huge," Fringer said.

"California is an agricultural state and we are number one at feeding the United States and fifth in the world," Wade said. "We need these vital ag programs to produce competent managers and workers who will keep California's agriculture going strong."

Gina Samper has two children at Minarets High that are active in FFA, and believes that if the grant funds are eliminated, it would be detrimental and devastating to the state's ag students.

"FFA provides opportunities for students that are unmatched," Samper said. "FFA enriches students lives not only in the education of growing and producing food ... crops and livestock ... but also many leadership, and public speaking opportunities. And in an environment with looming food shortages due to exponential population growth, water shortages, in addition to needing more jobs to grow our economy ... why would any logical governor even consider making such a drastic budget cut?"

Last year, Assemblyman Frank Bigelow spearheaded sending a letter to the governor, signed by 23 lawmakers, urging him to save the grant. Bigelow also co-authored Assembly Bill 2033 to ensure that the agricultural grant is funded next year, in case the funds are vetoed by the governor. On Tuesday, the bill was passed out of the Senate Ag Committee and will now move on to the legislature.

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