It is time to start thinking about and discussing the renewal of our Berkeley Schools Educational Excellence Project (BSEP). For almost 18 years, in two different measures, Berkeley voters have authorized an additional special tax (a rate per square footage, both residential and commercial, with different rates assigned to each). The current BSEP measure sunsets in 2006; it is likely that the measure will be brought back to the voters much sooner than that 2006 sunset date.
There are numerous reasons for this; I will enumerate some here.
1) The money generated from the BSEP special tax is relatively static from year to year. Because it is based on a square-footage formula on developed
property in Berkeley, annual proceeds do not significantly change from year to year. There is merely a modest Cost of Living Adjustment built into the measure. The result is that over the years the number of teachers and materials the measure is able to contribute has declined as salaries and cost of materials inevitably increase.
2) There is a willingness and even a will to bring the measure back before the 2006 sunset date by many people involved in BSEP oversight and/or BSEP funded programs. This in part because many in the community would like to see a redistribution of the funds as well as a possible increase in the annual proceeds.
3) Because of chronic underfunding from the state and federal government, local district’s budgets are severely restricted at this time. There is little or no “wiggle room” for teacher and other employee-salary increases, program expansion, or containment of class sizes. Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has been in a cost-cutting fiscal crisis for three years, and the prospects from the state and federal government do not look any better for the foreseeable future.
The BSEP measure has been a model of participatory democracy for the District and for the City of Berkeley. Representatives chosen at each site meet regularly at the District Planning and Oversight Committee to annually review, recommend, and oversee budget allocations from the current BSEP measure, which totals about $10 million. This money has funded an elementary music program, hired over 70 teachers each year, furnished library books, videos, band and orchestra sheet music, musical instruments, and art supplies. The sites have a pool of discretionary funds that they prepare an annual expenditure plan for; sites have funded resource specialists, athletics, tutoring services, art and science teachers, conflict resolution services, library services, and playground supervision, among many other things over the years.
Over the life of the measure the demands on the BSEP funds increase (BSEP is an essentially static parcel tax), class sizes rise, teachers’ salaries increase, and the funds in BSEP buy fewer and fewer teachers and staff, and have less and less buying power toward instructional materials and other real goods. Some of this is inevitable in a twelve-year tax measure, but the trend has been exasperated due to the severe nature of California’s budget crisis and the severe fiscal constraints this budget crisis has caused the district. Now that there is a Republican governor in Sacramento the prospects for adequate public school funding are even more uncertain, and perhaps more unlikely. We can and must control as much of the fate of our local schools as possible; equitable measures such as BSEP (all students are served, and the site allocation is based on a per-pupil formula) are one way to ensure at least some local control in our classrooms.
John Selawsky is Vice-president of the Berkeley School Board.