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— Franco complains that the federal government doesn't recognize Baja California's burden: that they are absorbing the economic plight of refugees coming north. "Baja California is servicing the added demand, but [the federal government] doesn't send additional money to cope with this," he says.

So authorities are looking locally to stretch their federal dollars. "This year we are developing a classroom model that is more economical than our standard design. We're using materials that are similar to what you use [in the U.S.]. It's wood with finishings of cement outside and inside. It's lighter than cement blocks and cheaper. A cement-block classroom currently costs us 220,000 pesos [about $23,000]. The new design will cost around 130,000 pesos [$13,500]. With the money we save, we're going to just about double the number of classrooms we can build."

This local initiative is possible because of a National Accord for the Modernization of Education, which the national government approved in 1993. The accord passed responsibility for school administration to the individual states -- though the control of syllabus and programs stayed in the federal government's hands.

But the National Action Party-dominated Baja California wants even more say in running its schools, says Franco. His mission in Tijuana is to unite the previously separate federal, state, and local school systems under one state organization. "It's a more efficient use of funds," he says, though he admits eliminating the duplication of jobs is "tough in human terms." But the result is that teachers and administrators don't have to take their problems to Mexico City or Mexicali for resolution. "We can resolve them right here in Tijuana," says Franco.

And they can take initiative, as Vega de Lamadrid did last year when he set up Tijuana's first program to help disabled children get an education. Franco now wants Mexico City to let Baja create its own syllabus.

"The majority of new students in Tijuana are immigrants coming from other states. They don't know Baja California. We want them to know the state they're living in. We're teaching them our history and geography and ecology. We also have started classes for the parents, so they can involve themselves in the education of their children. That's booming! We have also established an accident-insurance program for Tijuana pupils, as a pilot. Each of the children pays 11 pesos a year [just over $1]. I think it's the first program in the whole country. And this will benefit the poorest."

Maybe the biggest boon for poor secondary-school pupils will be getting assistance in buying textbooks. Franco's department has allotted 20 million pesos (just over $2 million) -- 90 percent of it state money -- to pay for books. "That will pay 60 percent of the cost of school textbooks," says Franco. "Next year it will be 100 percent."

For one person at the city hall today, there might not be a next year. The crowds of moms and dads have gone, but Marlene Camacho Verduzco is still sitting in Silvia Labastida's cubicle. Now that she's taken her hat off, the change in Marlene's appearance is shocking. She's lost most of her hair to chemotherapy. She and her mother and brother sit in silence, waiting to talk to Labastida again. Marlene says she still hopes to get her liver transplant in San Diego. But down here in Tijuana, she says, she's not getting the money quickly enough.

The giant check that Mayor Vega presented her, the one made possible by 2000 poor kids, sits against the wall. Marlene's ten-year-old brother Rolando looks up at the big writing: $12,000 is a lot of candy sold. He says it's "great," but he doesn't smile. He knows it won't save his sister.

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