Despite mounting pressure from parents for a November ballot measure that would add millions to the Berkeley Unified School District’s signature parcel tax, Superintendent Michele Lawrence urged community members Wednesday to consider a change in course that could delay the vote until 2005 or beyond.
The time is ripe, Lawrence said, to move beyond the confines of the tax, called the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP). Instead of identifying a few key concerns to allocate increased tax revenue, t he superintendent wants the district to embark on an ambitious evaluation of its programs and priorities with all revenue sources in play, including money from the general fund.
“If we stay to the big [picture], I think we’re capable of finding and ident ifying what’s good for all students,” Lawrence told about 70 parents and district employees at Wednesday’s community workshop on the tax measure.
BSEP is the biggest and the most widely supported tax measures in the city. In 1994, 82 percent of voters ap proved the $10 million parcel tax to fund specific programs the district’s general fund couldn’t cover. It was re-authorized in 1998 with 92 percent of the vote.
Now, however, rising inflation has forced the district to cut back on programs the measur e was authorized to preserve, including music classes and elementary school librarians. The measure doesn’t expire until 2006, but parents who attended the first workshop last month voted overwhelmingly to renew it this year at a higher tax rate. Their call to take the measure to the voters comes as the city is considering four tax hikes, including one specifically targeted towards youth programs.
The current $10 million tax comes to $234 a year from the average property owner.
Wednesday’s workshop was originally expected to set the framework for how much money to request in the prospective November BSEP renewal and which projects to fund.
Instead, Lawrence changed the rules of the game.
With the district’s budget in its best shape since 2001 and her contract renewed through 2006, Lawrence called for the community to begin a “big-picture” review of district priorities and possibly alter the tax to provide greater flexibility for what it can fund and a more centralized site-based oversight committee t o distribute the money.
Under the current measure, only 16 percent of tax revenue is discretionary. The rest goes directly for class size reduction, music programs, supplies and facility improvements.
Lawrence also broached forming single school-site c ommittees that would control all discretionary funds for a school. Currently, control over discretionary funds is split over several committees.
The superintendent insisted her proposal wouldn’t spell doom for a November ballot measure. That decision, along with how much money to seek, is ultimately up to the school board. Lawrence, however, did open the door to another community meeting on the tax, and to possibly holding a special election on it next March.
Karen Hemphill, parent of a BUSD student, generally approved of Lawrence’s message, but remained steadfast in support of a November, 2004 vote. If approved, a November BSEP renewal would guarantee the added revenue for the following school year. “The delay concerns me,” Hemphill said. “There’s a real need right now. People in the school community wanted to come up with BSEP last year.”
A final decision from the school board isn’t expected until June. Among their options include: authorizing a new 12-year tax measure for November, authorizing a t emporary measure that would ask voters to raise the parcel tax for a year or two while the district hammers out a long-term measure, or delaying the tax measure until the next scheduled elections in 2006 or a special election next year.
School board dire ctors declined to discuss their preferences for when to go to before voters or for how much to ask.
The stakes would be low for a ballot this November. Even if the measure failed, the district would continue to receive its current level of funding thro ugh 2006 and the district could return to voters with a revised measure, Lawrence said.
At Wednesday’s workshop, participants were told to budget for $16 million in mock allocation exercises, but many said that wasn’t enough and Lawrence was adamant that the $16 million figure was non-binding. Class size reduction and funding for music and arts remained top priorities for parents at the workshop. Others included programs for literacy, libraries, mental health, bilingual education and nutrition.
Even if the district holds off on a November ballot initiative, it could still win some relief from city ballot initiatives. Julie Sinai, an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, said that in addition to the proposed youth services tax, the city was exploring the possibility of including services for the school district in a potential library tax initiative. The money, Sinai said, could pay to send a city librarian to Berkeley elementary schools during after-school programs.e