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Berkeley School District Proposes Ballot Measures, Discusses Budget Shortfall

By Raymond Barglow
Tuesday June 15, 2010 - 02:34:00 PM
Teachers, students, and family members from MLK Middle School hold placards favoring retention of a vice-principal position at the school.
Raymond Barglow
Teachers, students, and family members from MLK Middle School hold placards favoring retention of a vice-principal position at the school.

The Berkeley School District Board voted on Wednesday evening to place two measures before the voters in November. The first is a bond measure for 210 million dollars “to improve school safety and facilities for learning and teaching.” This measure would fund construction of classrooms and science labs, seismic upgrades and technology upgrades, and would renovate playgrounds, restrooms, cafeterias, heating and fire safety systems, and other facilities. 

The bonds would be sold “over a period of approximately ten years” and would be paid from property taxes. This would cost property owners about $60 dollars annually per $100,000 of assessed valuation. 

The second measure is a renewal of a parcel tax, costing residential property owners about $65 per 1000 square feet and businesses about $97 per 1000 square feet. Revenue collected over ten years would be used to maintain and upgrade educational buildings and grounds. 

Most of the rest of the meeting was taken up by budgetary matters. Superintendent Huyett’s public letter summarizes the current situation, “Over the last two years, we trimmed $11 million from the budget, and now more reductions are required. For the next school year the Governor’s proposed reductions, coupled with our increasing costs, force us to reduce the General Fund budget by $3.1 million.” The district’s cuts are drastic ones, slashing support for classroom supplies, field trips, and many educational programs, and eliminating six staff positions. Adult school programs have been savaged, meaning fewer classes, larger class sizes, and higher fees. 

The most contested proposal at the meeting on Wednesday was the elimination of a vice principal position at Martin Luther King Middle School. About 30 teachers, students, and family members from the school community were in attendance, holding placards and speaking in favor of retaining their vice principal who, they say, is essential to ensuring an orderly and effective learning environment at the school. 

The school currently has three vice principals, which is an unusually large number, given the size of the school. Audience members argued, however, that all three are required to provide the quality of personal attention that students need. Classroom teachers typically see a student for only one year. Vice principals, on the other hand, provide guidance throughout a student’s stay at King.  

Board members didn’t take exception to the case made for keeping the VP position, but Superintendent Huyett said that the district was doing its best to make cuts in a sensible and balanced way. The Board agreed not to cut the position at once, but requested that the school think about how it can compensate for one less VP position. It also remains possible that some alternative funding for the position may be found. 

Huyett and Board members painted a devastating picture of the financial situation facing the district over the next several years. Huyett commented that when Jerry Brown was Governor, he was “very tight with money” and that the two current Republican candidates for this office are both fiscal conservatives. So we cannot expect much support from the Governor’s office. Board member Riddle said “We’ve been lobbied not to make cuts, but actually we’re being required to cut further.”  

Javetta Cleveland, Deputy Superintendent of the district, gave a detailed report on budgetary matters for the upcoming school year. Although Berkeley schools are supported by local parcel taxes and are therefore not as vulnerable to cuts as a school district like Oakland is, the district faces major challenges. The 2010-11 deficit is projected to exceed a million dollars. Even more daunting is the outlook for future years. $3.4 million that the district receives from federal stimulus funding is scheduled to end in 2011. Board member Riddle said that it’s very unlikely that this funding source will be renewed. Huyett anticipated a shortfall of “4 to 6 million. We think it’s closer to 6 million.”  

Berkeley voters have come to the district’s rescue in the past, providing parcel tax revenues that have shored up local public education. With its placement of two new measures on the fall ballot, the Board is hoping that the community will re-affirm that support.