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AmeriCorps Threatens to End Willard Project

Friday June 11, 2004

The Berkeley Unified School District has three business days to come up with $41,000 or else it risks losing a vital sponsor for a program that teaches students the splendors of urban gardening. 

After six years of receiving late or incomplete payments, AmeriCorps—the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps—has set a June 15 deadline for the district to square its long overdue balance.  

Should Berkeley Unified fail to deliver, AmeriCorps plans to withdraw its sponsorship of the Willard Middle School Greening Project, said Martin Weinstein the executive director of Bay Area Community Resources (BACR), a nonprofit that operates the program for AmeriCorps. 

“We’ve had a systemic problem with Berkeley for years now,” he said. “For whatever reason they haven’t been able to meet their obligation.” 

AmeriCorps provides half of the funding for two Greening Project employees at Willard and a third employee at Leconte Elementary School. At Willard, the employees work four days a week teaching a nutrition class, running a gardening club, supervising lunch, initiating beautification projects and assisting the gardener and cooking instructor to teach students to raise crops and cook the produce. 

“Without them we wouldn’t have a program,” said Matt Tsang, the school’s garden teacher and a former AmeriCorps volunteer at the school. He said it would be impossible for just one person to supervise gardening classes with more than 30 students. 

The 14-year-old program has an operating budget of about $100,000 and is part of a district-wide effort to teach students proper nutrition. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School has a more elaborate program, subsidized by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.  

While school districts are notoriously bad for paying their bills on time, Berkeley has been among the worst, Weinstein said.  

Previously, BACR has taken out loans to cover the district’s delinquent payments, but Weinstein said the nonprofit could no longer afford to bail out Berkeley Unified. 

“We waste an enormous amount of time trying to make the system work,” he said. “Our accountants spend hours and hours of time trying to track down purchase orders that don’t get paid.” 

In addition to the Greening Project, BACR acts as the fiscal agent for other Berkeley Unified programs including an after school program at Jefferson Elementary School, which Weinstein said has also been plagued by late payments. AmeriCorps also runs a program at the Berkeley High Health Center, but the city pays the district’s share of the costs. 

This year, the district owed AmeriCorps $9,000 for each of the three Greening Project employees. Weinstein said he sent out invoices in September, but didn’t get his first payment until this month. After the most recent payment from the district, BACR is still owed a total of $11,000 for this year. 

Weinstein said AmeriCorps planned to discontinue its sponsorship of the program unless Berkeley Unified paid its balance and made an upfront payment for its share of next year’s program, slated to cost $30,000. 

District spokesperson Mark Coplan doubted Berkeley Unified would authorize advance payments and charged that BACR failed to voice their concerns to the district administration or Willard Principal Michele Patterson.  

“Once they start communicating with [us] then we can solve the problem,” Coplan said. 

Although he didn’t have an explanation for the history of late payments, Coplan said this year’s problems stemmed from confusion between Willard and the central administration. When BACR sent their invoices to Patterson, she assumed the district had also received copies and didn’t forward them to the district’s accounting department, Coplan explained. 

Last month, a BACR representative contacted District Director of Student Services Gerald Herrick asking him to investigate the delinquent payments. 

Herrick located the invoices and Wednesday BACR picked up a series of checks totaling $88,000. The money included half of the $22,000 owed for Willard, with the balance coming from the Jefferson after school program. 

Before the district can pay the remainder of the money for the Willard program, the school must first write a new purchase order authorizing the payment, and then make sure that money is available in the school site’s discretionary account which funds the district’s share of the program, said Coplan.  

If the program is continued, Coplan said that to avoid confusion, the district would request BACR send invoices directly to district’s business office instead of the school site. 

Willard PTA member and garden volunteer Yolanda Huang, however, insists the district’s business office is culpable for the payment problems. Huang said she hand-delivered requisition requests for purchase orders to the district’s accounting department on Dec. 11, but the first check wasn’t issued until mid-March, and a second requisition form had been lost. 

“This highlights a basic problem with the BUSD,” she said. “They don’t have a simple uniform accounting method.” 

Adolfo Rivera of Bay Area AmeriCorps said he was holding fast to the June 15 deadline because the contracts for the volunteers expire next month and he says he can’t afford to hire replacements without a guarantee that Berkeley Unified would pay its bills. 

“We’ve been continuing in good faith because we like the program, but at this point enough is enough,” Rivera said. “We can’t continue to let this thing play itself out.”