Community voices concerns over future
of African-American studies program
The fate of City of Franklin school, the future of the African-American Studies Department and the quality of district budget figures all came up for debate at a Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, as the budget-cutting process continued to roil the community.
The board, which has already approved $3.8 million in cuts for next year, must chop about $6 million to balance the 2002-2003 budget.
In January, Superintendent Michele Lawrence recommended permanently closing Franklin, a K-6 school modeled after a city, to save the financially-strapped district an estimated $326,000. But the superintendent has shifted her position in recent weeks, and Wednesday night, she presented two options for keeping the school open. Board members suggested they are split over which option to pursue.
Under one scenario, the K-6 school would remain open next year as a first to fifth grade school, on a reduced budget, during a one-year refurbishing of the building. The school would receive minimal funds during this time. Lawrence said the school is under-enrolled and the district cannot afford to allocate a full budget to the small school.
A second option would be to move students elsewhere during construction, and re-open the school in the fall of 2003. No matter which option the board chooses, the district will likely place another program or administrative offices alongside Franklin school in 2003 to make better use of the large building, which is currently underutilized.
Board President Shirley Issel and Vice-President Joaquin Rivera said it is not realistic to keep the school open during construction on a shoestring budget.
“I really think that option one is a bad one,” said Rivera. “Only being able to give that school some partial support is a disaster waiting to happen.”
But board member Terry Doran suggested that shutting down for the year would be disruptive both to Franklin and to the surrounding schools, which would absorb the redistributed students.
In an interview Thursday, board member John Selawsky made similar arguments.
“Quite honestly, the information given to me last night makes me really uncomfortable about closing that school for a year,” said Selawsky, who maintained that he is still undecided.
Board member Ted Schultz, told the Daily Planet Thursday that he is remaining neutral while the superintendent gathers more information.
Selawsky said some parents at Berkeley Arts Magnet, an elementary school housed in a small facility, have their eye on the Franklin building, further complicating the picture.
“It’s on the table,” said Selawsky. “I think it makes sense, quite honestly. But that’s down the road, at least two years away.”
Selawsky said Franklin and Berkeley Arts Magnet may be able to co-exist in the same building.
African-American Studies and the six-period day
Last week, the board voted to move from a seven- to a six-period day at BHS beginning next fall as part of the $3.8 million package of budget cuts.
The schedule shift will reduce the number of electives available to students, including, quite possibly, African-American Studies courses.
A parade of parents, students and community activists, including several Black Muslims dressed in suits and bow ties, spoke up for African-American Studies Wednesday night.
“You’ve got to teach the most important knowledge in the world – knowledge of self,” said Yusuf Bey, owner of Oakland-based Your Black Muslim Bakery, urging the board to keep the department at full tilt.
Lawrence said there will be a reduction in electives, likely including art, music and African-American studies courses, among others. But she emphasized that, contrary to prevalent rumors, no programs will be eliminated.
Doran said the board had achieved a “delicate balance” in trimming the high school schedule and keeping valuable programs intact.
“We didn’t eliminate the African-American Studies Department,” Doran said. “We could have. We didn’t eliminate the arts and we could have.”
But parents said the cuts in electives will have devastating effects on students. Denise Jones, mother of a BHS graduate, said the school’s music program helped keep her oldest son in school.
“If he’d had a six-period day in his four years, he never would have graduated from Berkeley High School,” said Jones, who added that high school athletics, which also face cuts, were instrumental in keeping her son on track.
The district has put out conflicting messages about the cost savings associated with a shift to the six-period day. In a budget-cutting proposal released in January, Lawrence estimated a $520,000 savings. But, in a meeting with the Berkeley High School PTA this week, the superintendent said the savings would be closer to $150,000.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Lawrence said the $150,000 figure is probably too low. Derick Miller, president of the Berkeley PTA Council, and a vocal opponent of the switch to a six-period day, challenged the board for making a decision without a solid sense for the cost-savings.
“That’s a pretty difficult decision if we can’t even figure out how much we’re saving doing it,” he said.