After several months of once-every-two-week mediation sessions, talks between the Berkeley Unified School District and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers took a dramatic turn this week, with a Monday session convening at 9 a.m. and running until 3 a.m., and then reconvening Wednesday afternoon. Two more sessions are scheduled next week, for Monday and Wednesday.
Berkeley teachers have been working for two years past the end of the last contract, and talks are being handled through a state-appointed mediator. Compensation and class sizes are reportedly the two major issues dividing the two sides.
BFT President Barry Fike said that “we are cautiously optimistic” about the talks. “We do feel like solid progress was made.”
Fike declined further comment on details of the bargaining talks, saying only that he himself remained until 4 a.m. with unnamed district representatives on Tuesday morning to continue talking.
At Wednesday night’s BUSD Board meeting, Board Vice President Terry Doran was equally vague about details of the talks, saying only that “we’ve had marathon negotiation sessions. No one has walked away. No one has said we’re not going to talk any more. So I’m optimistic that we’re getting closer.”
BUSD Superintendent Michele Lawrence made no comment about the sessions.
Before Wednesday’s board meeting, some 200 Berkeley teachers and their supporters rallied on the Old City Hall steps in support of their contract demands. The rally continued through the beginning of the board meeting, with the sounds of the singing of “Solidarity Forever, the union makes us strong” coming through the open second floor windows as board directors listened to a presentation from the principal of Longfellow School.
Directors approved $291,000 in transfers of budget expenditures from the district’s general fund to other funds for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 fiscal years. Lawrence said the transfers were needed “to free up general fund money in case we need it to meet some of the contract issues.”
The superintendent said that her office would bring “another set of cuts that we have not yet completed” to board members for consideration at the next meeting.
But at Lawrence’s request, directors took off the table consideration of Lawrence’s request to transfer another $295,000 in 2004-05 through 2005-06 general funds to the Measure BB account. That came after Safety and Maintenance Oversight Committee (Measure BB) Chair Phil Flounders spoke at the meeting, protesting the transfers.
Lawrence told the directors, “I thought the Measure BB transfers had been recommended by the Measure BB Committee, but after [Flounders} spoke, I realized there may have been a miscommunication between myself, staff and the BB Committee. I want to spread these cost transfers equitably across all of the funds, but I understand the concern that if Measure BB takes too big a hit, it won’t be able to realize its maintenance goals.”
The Measure BB Committee was scheduled to meet on Thursday night. Lawrence said that she would wait to meet with committee representatives about the possible transfer of the money, and then bring a report back to the board.
Sale Of Surplus Property
With Director Shirley Issel dissenting, the board approved a request by Superintendent Lawrence to add any possible proceeds of a possible sale of the abandoned Hillside school property to a bill currently introduced in the state legislature by Assemblymember Joe Coto (D-San Jose).
Current state law requires that monies from the sale of school property go into the school district’s maintenance fund. Coto’s bill, which is aimed at two Santa Clara County schools districts, would allow those two districts a three year window to put proceeds from school sales into their unrestricted general funds. Adding Berkeley Unified School District to the bill would give BUSD the same three year opportunity.
Last January, the BUSD board approved the formation of a surplus committee to dispose of the Hillside school property.
“There is no presumption that we are going to sell the property,” said Lawrence. “Selling won’t necessarily be a recommendation of mine. But adding our name to this bill gives us the flexibility to dispose of the money if the surplus committee decides to sell.”
Issel disagreed, calling the procedure “dangerous. I don’t want that flexibility. It’s like the devil dangling sex. Because we’ve been so poor as a district for so many years, I think there would be too much temptation for us to turn around and spend any money from the proceeds.”
Fellow board members disagreed, passing the resolution 4-1. Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) has already agreed to sponsor the amendment to the Coto bill.›